A few years ago a director at the Victoria and Albert Museum, was chided for producing blockbusters that bust no blocks. Today, aside from its catering and retailing outlets, that museum – which once advertised itself as “An ace caff, with quite a nice museum attached” – has a department exclusively dedicated to the production of special exhibitions. It generates eight exhibitions a year with a further fifteen travelling around the world at any one time (see “The world is her oyster”, in the Autumn/Winter 2013, V&A Magazine). As more and more of Art’s Flying Dutchmen encircle the globe, an awful lot of holes are appearing in the collections of great museums – as at the Louvre, as Didier Rykner has eloquently demonstrated (“The Louvre Invents the Gruyère Museum” ). This development is perverse as well as regrettable: a chief defence that museums make when seeking funding for expensive acquisitions is that they are needed to fill crucial gaps in a collection.
At the British Museum the number of loans (and therefore holes) doubled between 1985 and 2000, in which year 214 objects or groups of objects were loaned. That was for starters. In 2008, under its present globe-trotting director, Neil Macgregor, the museum got 2,500 objects “on the road” in Britain alone. In a submission this year to the Scottish Parliament, Mr MacGregor boasted that between 2003 and 2013 the museum had loaned over “over 30,000 (many very fragile)” objects, with only eight injuries. In 2006 the BM packed 160,000 visitors in three months into a (physically) small exhibition of Michelangelo’s drawings, at £10 a head (plus takings from the catering and retailing outlets). Mr MacGregor ruefully claimed that three times as many tickets could have been sold had space permitted. The following year he announced plans for a £100m expansion of the British Museum that was reportedly triggered because it had had to turn down a unique chance “to show off” the largest collection of Tutankhamun treasures ever seen in the west (Evening Standard, 6 July 2007), works which went instead to the former Millennium Dome, now re-branded as “02”.
It would seem that nothing in museums is now safe from this international exhibitions jamboree – no work plays too important a role within a collection, or is too fragile, or too unwieldy, to prevent curators from taking a gamble with its welfare (in hope of reciprocal loans and a curatorial buzz). The Metropolitan Museum in New York is one of the most voracious recipient/organisers of exhibitions. It needs to be. Its special exhibitions, which are free, are the biggest justification for the museum’s whopping “recommended” $25 entrance charge (- the legality of which is under challenge). As we have seen, the present director of the Metropolitan, Thomas Campbell, once boasted that only his museum could have shaken-down (“Item: The Met’s Strong-arming of Reluctant Lenders”) other great art institutions to get them to part with the fabulous Renaissance tapestries that were sent to a special show in New York.
The Metropolitan Museum will likely be the first international stop (after a six months stay-over at the British Museum) for a long-planned show of plum works from the Burrell Collection in Glasgow that will take place should the Scottish Parliament oblige the Glasgow City Council by over-turning the prohibitions in Sir William Burrell’s bequest on all foreign loans and vulnerable works within Britain.
Next October in New York, the Museum of Modern Art will host a show of some of the most fragile and difficult-to-transport works of modernism. As Martin Bailey reports in the current Art Newspaper, (“Journey at Snail’s pace”) Henri Matisse’s monumental 1953 paper collage, The Snail, is to leave the Tate for the first time since the gallery bought it more than 50 years ago. It will be a star exhibit in “Henri Matisse: the Cut-Outs”, at Tate Modern next April, that will include its sister works, Memory of Oceania, 1953, and Large Composition with Masks, before travelling to MOMA in New York. Although the itinerary is set, what is not yet clear, Bailey discloses, is how the Tate’s giant and fragile work will travel or even how it will be be packed:
“The problem of how to transport the huge work, which measures nearly three square metres, has plagued conservators for years. Paris’s Grand Palais asked to borrow the work for a major retrospective on the artist in 1970, but was refused because of the risks associated with transporting it. Its original late-1960s glazing is being replaced with laminated glass, which will reduce the risk of damage during transportation. However, laminated glass is heavy: with its frame, the work will weigh around 300kg. If the collage is set at a 45° angle within a crate, it will fit more easily through doorways, but if the work is transported flat, it will need a case measuring around four square metres.”
Those keenest to lend and borrow lean heavily on the relative safety of international aviation, but with these particular monumentally large but flimsily constructed works, Bailey discloses that a spokeswoman for the Tate was unwilling to discuss transport arrangements. He has discovered, however, that they might travel by sea because there are almost no cargo planes large enough to carry them, and because the exhibition’s sponsor is… South Korea’s largest shipping company, Hanjin Shipping. Either way, as Nick Tinari of Barnes Watch has repeatedly testified, when Matisse’s mural La Danse was detached from its permanent home at the Barnes Foundation, Merion, and sent off at a 45° angle on an open flatbed truck to the first stop (the National Gallery of Art, Washington) of a world tour, it was to return home badly damaged.
Not only are museums gutting themselves to feed international loan exhibitions, they are, as our colleague in New York, Ruth Osborne, discusses (“The Dismemberment of the Louvre: Travels to Louvre Abu Dhabi promise damages and leave Parisian Museum-goers in the Lurch”), beginning to do so on an even greater scale as part of international “rebranding exercises” in which museum annexes are created in improbable but rich centres so that museums may present themselves as pan-national or global brands (- along with Gucci now read Guggenheim). A lot of money is being made and a lot of careers advanced. Some journalists effectively double as cheerleaders for the tourism-fuelled cultural arts economies of centres like London and New York. However, along with these booming arts economies, risks are rising – and not just with the works of art: those who blithely authorise streams of loans risk putting their own reputations on a block.
NEWS UPDATE 26-11-13
The Guardian today carries this letter from ArtWatch UK:
“You illustrate the new exhibition of Turner seascapes at the National Maritime Museum with a giant reproduction of the artist’s now badly wrecked, many-times restored ‘Rockets and Blue Lights’ without issuing any kind of art conservation health warning (Eyewitness, 21.11.13). A clue to the extent to which this picture is no longer a remotely fair representation of Turner’s work is found in the picture’s full title, ‘Rockets and Blue lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water’ – for this was once a painting of two steamboats in distress, not of one. The now lost boat was recorded in a large chromolithographic copy of the painting that was commissioned in 1852, and in a photograph of 1896. Viewers who compare your present image with the recorded earlier states of the picture will likely marvel at the transformation by twentieth century restorers of the sky, and at the losses of storm-driven smoke from the funnels of the original pair of steamboats, one of which vessels has now disappeared under the waves along with its originally depicted crew members.”
In the ArtWatch UK Journal No 19 (Winter 2003), we carried an article by the artist Edmund Rucinski (“Ship lost at Clark. Many records feared missing. Establishment unfazed.”)
Unfazed the establishment was then – and, evidently, so remains today. Despite the disappearance of the second boat (and its smoke) in a recent cleaning, the owners of the Turner, The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute of Williamstown, USA, had included the work in a travelling exhibition (“Turner – The Late Seascapes”) that ran at the Clark from June to November in 2003, before transferring across the Atlantic to the Manchester Art Gallery in January 2004 and then on to Glasgow in March 2004.
At a public lecture at the Clark Institute, on 2 August 2003, Edmund Rucinski (who knew of the 1852 chromolithographic copy shown right) had been astonished to hear the restorer, David Bull, claim that the picture had originally depicted a single boat and that the second, now-removed, boat had not been painted by Turner but was a restorer’s addition made, possibly for Lord Duveen around 1910. That claim slowly sank. When Rucinski spoke to David Bull and asked on what authority the second boat had been removed, he replied that it was on a photograph of a single-boated copy of the painting that had been supplied by the Clark Institute’s senior curator, Richard Rand.
On 15 October 2003, the Times’ arts correspondent, Dalya Alberge, reported that when asked how it had been established that the second boat could not have been painted by Turner, Mr Bull had said: “The answer is we don’t know. It was a general consensus.” Thus, what had been presented publicly as a historically verified certainty was downgraded within a couple of months to a best guess, collective assumption. That position was maintained for several months and was reiterated in the Manchester Evening News of 14 January 2004, which reported: “The American owners of the painting and the restorer…say a second boat may have been added by an early 20th century restorer”.
On 28 March 2004 the show moved to Glasgow and the Glasgow Herald reported that the Clark’s senior curator had said “We have always maintained that the original Turner had two boats”. The importance of heavy promotion for travelling exhibitions was demonstrated in October 2003 when the Tate, which had not taken part in the travelling exhibition, nonetheless issued a press release that ended with the following claim:
“One of the stars of the show is Turner’s dramatic “Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water”, 1840 which has recently undergone major conservation and is a loan from the Sterling Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, USA”.
In additions to newspaper reports of critisms of the restoration, many interventions were made by scholars, as below:
“Since ‘Slavers’ and ‘Rockets’…have ended up in collections geographically so close to each other, it struck Hamilton [James Hamilton, the show's curator] as a good idea to show them together, arguing that Turner had intended them as a pair. The first snag was that Boston decided that ‘Slavers’ was too unstable to travel, even to Williamstown, so it was not in the show at all…But there is a danger that Turner has become a guaranteed crowd-puller, to be had recourse to at the expense of equally interesting but less certainly popular subjects. This is not a development to be welcomed, if only because Turner’s works are exceptionally vulnerable: the paintings, to the stresses of travel on their experimental construction; the watercolours to the exposure of light. He is not a resource that can be exploited indefinitely…”
~ The Turner scholar, Andrew Wilton, in a review for the Burlington Magazine, March 2004.
The ‘Slavers’ of which Wilton spoke, is Turner’s oil painting Slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying – Typhoon coming on. In 2000 the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston which owns the painting found it to be damaged and “extremely unstable” on return from a loan to the Tate Gallery. Despite having been “glazed and sealed against changes in relative humidity, the picture [had] reacted significantly to the voyage” and lost flakes of paint. An unfazed (and institutionally unrepentant) Tate spokeswoman said in response to disclosure of the damage:
“It arrived here safely where it was examined thoroughly. Its condition was stable…However, Turner’s paintings are notorious for becoming unstable.”
Indeed they are. So why the incessant demands from temporary exhibition organisers to keep borrowing them? And why the systematic attempts to deceive the public into believing that the most restoration-wrecked pictures are the “stars” of the shows?
For our part, we have repeatedly drawn attention to these travel-induced injuries. On 24 October 2007 the Daily Telegraph carried this letter from ArtWatch UK:
“Sir – The Mellon Center’s decision (report, October 17) to break its own rule never to lend Turner’s fragile ‘Dort or Dordrecht: The Dort Packet-Boat from Rotterdam Becalmed’ seems perverse: only seven years ago, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston lent its Turner ‘Slavers throwing overboard the dead and the dying, Typhoon coming on’ to the Tate. On its return to Boston, that painting was found to have suffered losses of paint and to be in an ‘extremely unstable’ condition.
A Tate spokeswoman said: ‘It arrived here safely…Its condition was stable…However, Turner’s paintings are notorious for becoming unstable.’
This being so, why are trustees and curators prepared to take such risks with priceless works of art?”
Clearly, the question still stands.
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Art and Photography
Returning from an ArtWatch trip to New York and Philadelphia (refreshed and invigorated, as always), a first task was to take clippings from the previous week’s newspapers. On facing pages of the Times of 26 October, two startling and memorable images shouted in hilarious unison – and surely not in accidental juxtaposition? The first (here Fig. 2) was of a squirrel that had dropped a nut. The second was of one politician (Hillary Clinton, Fig. 1) endorsing another at a rally. The pendent pair of images testified to photography’s special, most distinguishing technical trait: its unique power to make/capture instantaneous-but-enduring mechanical records of particular scenes at singular moments. Photography (in its chemical and digital forms) has been a profoundly revolutionary addition to the world’s image making and recording capacities. That it is so at this point is beyond any dispute, but, then, it has never constituted, as some still hold, a replacement for those hand-crafted (painted, drawn or engraved) images made by people who are sometimes called artists. (See Gareth Hawker’s “A Photograph is a Copy, not a Creation“.)
On 25 October, at New York’s famous art school, The Art Students League, we were privileged to watch a kind of master class given by the painter Thomas Torak, who for thirty or so minutes, worked over a student’s oil painting of a model – a heretical procedure in many educationalists’ eyes. Using the student’s own palette, paints and brushes, he explained the artistic purpose of every change and adjustment as he went along. Starting at the passage depicting the model’s forehead, Torak suggested that the tones were too uniform. Lightening the student’s own flesh tint on the palette, he placed a firm highlight against the darkest tone on the shaded side of the head. Instantly – at a proverbial stroke – the form of the brow sprang forward from the canvas and turned convincingly in (evoked) space. With a stronger forehead, Torak moved down to the eyes in their sockets, darkening the shadowed hollows and placing strategic lights on the lids and the bulging eyes themselves. And so on and so forth down the head and into the body. Every adjustment was made on the authority of values seen to be present on the model herself, at that time and in that light. Seemingly, nothing was being invented: piece by piece, step by step, observable relationships between adjoining values were first carefully appraised and then artfully replicated in hue and tone on the palette, before being judiciously laid onto the painting.
However, as facet related to facet and form to form, the mosaic whole began to assume a compelling and designed narrative form from a brush that drew and revised as it coloured. Finally, Torak introduced consideration of the model’s entire body and clothing to the values of the background wall within the then-present natural top-down light. Here, again, the student had made too-equal an appraisal of the relative figure/ground values: the background was markedly too dark and too warm. Lightening and cooling its tone and hue caused the untouched figure to jump forward on the canvas in a startling “before-the-eyes” pictorial magic. Watching the demonstration and the entire group of students, it was apparent that without seeing Torak’s painting but simply by heeding his words of analysis and explanation, other painters in the studio were modifying their own work on similar rationales and to considerable benefits.
As a mild-mannered, softly-spoken man, Thomas Torak may be one of the art world’s most insufficently appreciated figures. Fortunately, the deftness of his speech and the acuity of his eye find other outlets at the Art Students League. Writing in that art school’s magazine LINEA (- and how very fortunate New York is that such an institution should have survived waves of modernist iconoclasm), Torak quietly, gently shredded a recent noisy attributional upgrade, rashly made on the back of a pictorially disruptive restoration at the now curatorially hyper-ventilating Metropolitan Museum of Art: see “The Rediscovered Velázquez” of 25 December last year.
Returning to our hotel at 11 p.m. on the last night of the trip, we witnessed another kind of artistic tour de force. On the corner of Times Square and West 48th Street, a “street artist” was working on a triple portrait, made in conté crayon on the basis of a photograph taken on a mobile phone (see Fig. 7), as his three subjects sat on the sidewalk behind him. The image of each head on the photograph could have been no more than half an inch high, and yet, from this miniscule photographic record, the artist was producing at speed perfectly credible heads with very fair likenesses. Like David Hockney – as we discovered once when drawing by the side of Lake Como – artists never pass one another without making an involuntary detour to take a peek. “Where did you learn to draw like this?” I asked the street artist. “In China” he replied. Ah yes, and alas, it could hardly have been recently at the Royal Academy Schools in London where Tracey Emin has been appointed Professor of Drawing. (See Harry Mount’s “Where will the Queen hang her rubbish portrait by Tracey Emin?”)
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Barnes, Burrell and a Beck Memorial Lecture: “Philippe Mercier Watteau’s English Follower” ~ by Martin Eidelberg
In 1991 a restorer brought Professor James Beck of Columbia University to trial in four Italian cities on charges of aggravated criminal slander. (Beck’s comments to one journalist had been carried in four regional newspapers.) Facing a possible three years jail sentence and ruinous, punitive damages – the restorer demanded 60 million lire for “material and moral damages” – Beck was exposed, vulnerable, alone. The restorer had sued Beck but not the four newspapers that had carried the allegedly damaging comments by the world’s leading authority on Jacopo della Quercia, whose famous marble carving in Lucca Cathedral, The Ilaria del Carretto, had been stripped of its ancient patina in a “conservation treatment” that included being blasted with particles to remove abrasions and scratches and saturated with penetrating oil to produce a homogeneously shiny surface (see Figs. 2 and 3). Despite the awfulness of the restoration everyone expected Beck to lose. One person who knew that he was going to lose – the trial judge in Florence – told the prosecuting lawyer as they left the court building together for lunch on the first day of the trial that he would find the scholar guilty: “Eh, but I shall convict him”.
Fortunately, that declared intention was overhead by an intern-lawyer and former policeman who happened to be working for Beck’s own lawyer. The judge and the lawyer disputed the attributed words but not the fact that they had left the court talking to each other about the case. Despite their joint denial, eventually, the judge was replaced and Beck was acquitted. (The story of that trial is told in the book “Art Restoration ~ The Culture, the Business and the Scandal” by James Beck and Michael Daley.) By then, Beck had resolved to set up an international organisation dedicated to speak and act on behalf of art against harmful practices and abusive or exploitative treatments. ArtWatch International was founded in 1992 to be that organisation.
When Beck died in 2007 we knew that the best way to honour his courageous stance was by continuing to campaign through ArtWatch. At the same time, to commemorate his achievements as a rigorous (Rudolph Wittkower-trained) scholar and highly popular teacher, we instigated an annual memorial lecture, alternating between London and New York, to be given by scholars of high esteem. We have been honoured by talks from Professors Hellmut Wohl and Charles Hope in London in 2009 and 2011, and by Professors Mark Zucker and David Freedberg in New York in 2010 and 2012.
The fifth lecture was given in London this year on September 30th by Professor Martin Eidelberg at the Society of Antiquaries of London in Burlington House. It was a sparkling and instructive occasion as Professor Eidelberg showed (through more than fifty PowerPoint slides) a succession of visual comparisons which deftly separated the subject of his talk, Watteau’s English follower, Philippe Mercier, from the many inferior works that had been attached to the artist as a kind of attributional flag of convenience, thereby exposing the intriguing conundrum of a painter of considerable quality who had remained a faithful pastichist of his chosen master, borrowing motifs at every step of his own career. An account of this elusive artistic entity will be carried in the next ArtWatch UK journal – just as the fourth lecture by Charles Hope (“The National Gallery Cleaning Controversy”) is carried in the current journal. Professor Eidelberg cites on his (excellent, as Selby Whittingham describes below) website, Watteau and His Circle, an anecdote about the friend of a colleague who responded to a general archaeology exam question with:
“an incredibly detailed answer about a minor type of Roman provincial pottery. The examiners were bowled over by this man’s extraordinary knowledge on such a minuscule topic, but then asked him why he had expended so much energy on a subject that only three or four people in the world knew anything about. His reply was ‘I realize that, but with them I have such interesting conversations.’”
Martin Eidelberg expresses the hope that his own essays will find a readership, encourage others’ research, lead to stimulating conversations on the art of Watteau and his circle. Certainly, his lecture on the 30th left the (distinguished) audience delighted and flattered to have been party to so discriminating and illuminating a conversation. Given the talk’s rarified subject it seemed appropriate to ask a specialist in the field, Selby Whittingham, who is Secretary of the Watteau Society, Donor Watch and The Independent Turner Society to offer a note on the speaker and his researches.
Dr Whittingham recalls:
“It is 29 years since I first met Martin Eidelberg at the colloquium at Paris to celebrate the tercentenary of Watteau’s birth, to which we both contributed, Martin on Watteau and his early master, Gillot. The speaker immediately preceding myself, Brian Allen, spoke about early imitators of Watteau in England, of whom “easily the most important” was Philip Mercier. Fifteen years earlier John Ingamells and the late Robert Raines, a founder member of the Watteau Society in 1984, held an exhibition on Mercier at York Art Gallery, followed by a catalogue of his works published fittingly by the Walpole Society (Horace Walpole having owned an actual Watteau, now at St Petersburg).
“As Martin’s conclusions will appear in his excellent Watteau blog, suffice it to say that he has once again challenged accepted views and causes us to revise our ideas about Watteau and his satellites. It was a rare privilege for a London audience to hear such an erudite talk, as the subject of Watteau long bypassed London, the blame for this being laid on the embargo put by Lady Wallace on the Wallace Collection from lending any of its pictures! However the accession of Christoph Vogtherr as its Director (successor but one to Ingamells) has now shown that need not be so, and that scholarly publications are not dependent on blockbuster loan exhibitions. On the other hand it is regrettable that an exhibition, mainly of photographs, on Watteau’s techniques held just after the tercentenary at Brussels never transferred, as its organisers had wished, to England, as the matter would have been of great interest to supporters of ArtWatch, some of whom will remember how a conservation mistake was shown by Martin Eidelberg at a previous meeting to have obliterated additions to a painting made by Watteau himself.”
The earlier ArtWatch talk to which Selby Whittingham refers was much appreciated by James Beck. As well as providing a platform for good talks, Artwatch soon discovered that people feel freer to approach and pass on intelligence to a dedicated organisation than to individuals. One of the first to do so was Nick Tinari, a young electrical engineer and devoted student at the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania. He brought news of an attempt to overturn a prohibition on loans of art works from the Barnes Foundation’s fabulous collection of modern paintings. This, indeed, was alarming: tours not only constitute greatly increased risks (six-fold in the judgement of one insurer) but too often serve also as pretexts for “conservation treatments”. With the Barnes collection (as with that of the Sterling and Francine Clark collection – see “Taking Renoir, Sterling and Francine Clark to the Cleaners”), the now-at-risk paintings were in the best, which is to say, least-restored conditions.
The justification for the proposed breach of a fabulously generous donor’s wishes and conditions was that money could be raised through a foreign tour of key works in the collection to make “conservation” improvements to the building in which the collection was housed. Alleged conservation needs provide morally-coercive cover for many professional expansions and building projects. Tinari saw the proposal as a ruse contemptuous of Barnes’ intentions and philosophy. Events proved him right – the assets of an institution were effectively hi-jacked and its educational purpose greatly subverted. The story of that heist has been well told (and see Tinari’s own comments below). Less sufficiently appreciated is Tinari’s own remarkable and tenacious defence of Barnes’ wishes and instructions against the hot-shot lawyers of the would-be institutional transformers. Those encounters so sharpened his awareness of and appetite for the law that he turned to law school himself and now works as a patents attorney.
Artwatch has always seen itself as something of a standard bearer and supporter of other worthy autonomous campaigns on Art’s behalf. James Beck had great fondness for courageous campaigning individuals and created a small prize which he named after the New York painter Frank Mason. Mason, a longstanding and popular traditionalist teacher at New York’s famous Art Students League (among his student/devotees was the great American satirist and author of “The Painted Word”, Tom Wolfe), was a pioneering anti-restoration figure in the US, leading marches of artists and students at the Art Students League to the Metropolitan Museum in protest at its picture restorations. In opposition to the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel ceiling he enlisted the engagement of the writer and former art critic of Time Magazine, Alexander Eliot. With the philosopher Thomas Molnar and the cultural historian Arcadi Nebolsine, Mason had founded The International Society for the Preservation of Art, which organisation was incorporated within ArtWatch International at its 1992 foundation.
At this year’s James Beck Memorial Lecture we awarded the 2013 Frank Mason Prize to Nick Tinari. He, like Selby Whittingham (the recipient of the 2011 Frank Mason Prize), has joined our campaign against Glasgow City Council’s attempt to have conditions of Sir William Burrell’s bequest overturned by the Scottish Parliament so as to permit foreign tours of works from the collection. The submissions to the Scottish Parliament made by Donor Watch, Nick Tinari, and ourselves, can be read at this site. Evidence given to the Parliamentary Committee by ArtWatch UK and others can be seen here.
Nick Tinari’s submission begins:
“I am a practicing attorney and an electrical engineer. I am also an alumnus of the education program of the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania. Like Mr. Burrell, the founder of the Barnes Foundation, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, made his gift of an extensive art collection including the stipulation in an Indenture of Trust that none of the works should be loaned. This stipulation was temporarily breached in the 1990s based on the argument that the foundation was lacking funds to maintain theMerion gallery and that a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity had opened for a tour of the artwork to Washington D.C., Paris and Tokyo, with the French and Japanese venues paying a total of $7 million for the loan. This was one of the earliest instances of outright rental of artwork for exhibition and at the time the largest sum ever paid for such a transaction. Since then, the practice has become commonplace…”
In view of this great familarity with the Barnes case and its clear relevance to present considerations of the private bill presently before the Scottish Parliament, we asked Nick Tinari if he might address that relationship when making his response to receiving the Frank Mason Prize.
Nick Tinari’s response:
“I want to thank everyone at ArtWatch for awarding me the Frank Mason prize this year. I’ve worked alongside ArtWatch for many years and they are doing important work that no one else is addressing, namely, protecting our artistic heritage for the long haul, not just for the next exhibition or next year, but for as long as we will continue to recognize artistic genius, which hopefully is a very, very long way out.
“In addition to being a remarkable artist and teacher, Frank Mason was an early voice against imprudent “restoration” of artwork. We are in the small club of those who organized protests at museums, his in the 1970s at the Metropolitan Museum and mine in the 1990s at the Washington National Gallery and Philadelphia Museum of Art.
“I met Jim Beck many years ago when I was trying to stop the dismantling of the Barnes Foundation in Merion Pennsylvania. One aspect of the plan to break the founder’s will was an international tour of 80 works from the collection. It was a story that is very similar to the current plans for the Burrell Collection in Glasgow. The trustees no longer had connections to the donor or his intent and they wanted to elevate their own agendas and “put the Barnes on the map,” which was, of course, ridiculous because the Barnes Foundation was world-renowned long before the arrival of new trustees.
“I asked Jim for help because the tour organizer, the Washington National Gallery of Art, wanted to remove varnish from many of the works, many of which came into the collection directly from the artists’ studios and thus were in pristine condition, even if not bright enough for the kinds of shows the National Gallery puts on.
“This was in the infancy of ArtWatch and Jim wrote some letters and we did press releases together and got some attention to the matter. In the end, the works were not touched for the tour, the rumor being that the French organizers objected to altering the paintings, although some of the same institutions have certainly made their own mistakes since then.
“Between 1993 and 1995, roughly 80 Barnes paintings did travel to Washington, Paris, Tokyo, Fort Worth, Toronto, Philadelphia and Munich. Because I did not believe the National Gallery’s officials’ promises about the supposedly careful transit conditions—they actually claimed the works would be safer on tour than in Merion—I examined the works myself in Washington, Paris, Fort Worth, Toronto and Philadelphia. Aided by the condition reports for the paintings prepared before the tour by the National Gallery and which I obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, I documented damage to several works as they were moved from city to city.
“The most dramatic damage that I saw was in the form of stretcher creases extending the width of one of the four-meter-wide canvas sections of Matisse’s la Danse [see Figs. 24 and 25], which Barnes commissioned for three lunettes in the central gallery at Merion [see Fig. 17]. Contrary to National Gallery testimony that climate-controlled trucks would be used, the large panels were shipped from Merion to Washington in open-air flat bed trucks in 40 degree Fahrenheit weather and then laid flat and rolled up to a special opening in a large window at the National Gallery [see Fig. 19]. I did not witness it, but presumably, a similar procedure was used to move the panels to the Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris. We have photos of the arrival of the panels at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, again on open trucks and again laid flat before being moved into the building.
“These photos [Figs. 24 and 25] show the damage as I recorded it at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where the painting was on display while the remaining works traveled to other cities. The National Gallery’s incredible response was that they simply had not noted the stretcher creases on the original condition reports. This is belied by an earlier report prepared by chief conservator, Ross Merrill, prior to removal of the work from the Barnes’ walls. In the report, Merrill states that the panels were in “remarkably good condition . . . taught and in plane.” An independent conservator, Paul Himmelstein, testified that the stretcher creases were typical of damage caused by laying a work horizontal against its stretchers, especially during a period of change in relative humidity. That is exactly what one would expect in bringing the work from the heated gallery in Merion to an unheated ride down I95 to Washington and then to be laid flat on the ground there. Prior to this, the work had not been off the wall or out of vertical position since Matisse saw it installed in 1934.
“A second instance of National Gallery mendacity involved the large Seurat les Poseuses, which a previous conservator at the Barnes Foundation stated should not travel [see Fig. 23]. The National Gallery approved the Seurat’s travel but, remarkably, changed its mind after the work had been to Washington, Paris and Tokyo. The claim was that the painting was not damaged but just should not travel any further. Of course this makes no sense. Either the painting was in the exact physical condition that it was in when it left Merion and thus fit for continued travel or it had been degraded since Merion, which was why it was no longer fit for travel. I suppose the third option is that, as the earlier conservator observed, the work was never in condition to travel and the National Gallery, having now exhibited the rare work, was willing to reverse itself, while not admitting that the decision to allow travel was wrong from the start. At least for now, the painting has this helpful footnote in its record should the urge to tour it arise again, although, as in the case of the Matisse, it is pretty clear that Alice in Wonderland rules apply to statements from the National Gallery.
“The final affront to the Matisse occurred only recently when it was moved from Merion to a new gallery in Philadelphia. As it played out, the agenda to put the Barnes Foundation “on the map” did not mean on a map of Merion, Pennsylvania but five miles away in center city Philadelphia. Anyone interested in the full saga of the complete reversal of Barnes’ wishes that the collection remain in Merion as primarily a teaching collection should view the 2009 documentary The Art of the Steal or consult John Anderson’s recently-updated book Art Held Hostage. As for the Matisse, the architects and the Barnes trustees responsible for dismantling Barnes’ express mandate for the collection’s use and display did not recreate in Philadelphia the same building details that Matisse worked to. Rather, in keeping with the Modernist design of the new Philadelphia gallery, they eliminated oak moldings above three windows that Matisse clearly used as visual pediments supporting the figures in the mural [see Figs. 17 and 18]. In place of these visual anchors, there is now a wide strip of bare wall with the figures in the work now adrift. This stripping of the Merion details is so obvious a disturbance of Matisse’s harmonization of the mural to the Merion building that it displays the complete and utter ignorance of both the architects and the Barnes trustees, some of whom fancy themselves as “important” collectors, whose mediocre accretions are regularly exhibited with the connivance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art on whose board they also sit.
“The Barnes matter is unfortunately being replayed nearly verbatim in Glasgow at the Burrell Collection. The present stewards of the collection want to remove Burrell’s restriction against the works travelling outside of the UK. The premise is the same as it was in Merion, namely, there are insufficient funds to repair the gallery and touring the collection would raise funds, while the real motive, as with Barnes, is to use a tour of the artwork to put Glasgow “on the map.” ArtWatch has joined this present battle, and rightly so, because, collections like Barnes and Burrell are special islands of calm in a noisy field where art is now seen as a commercial enticement for tourist dollars. The conditions that Barnes and Burrell attached to their generous gifts should be observed not only because of the moral imperative, but because I think it is important to have at least some small part of the cultural heritage that is not subject to commercial pressures and dangers of endless tour schedules and inevitable damage and repair, not to mention the desire to brighten up works to suit viewers jaded by digital, LCD-lit images. Because Barnes had such restrictions on his collection, the works were not hastily cleaned when most museums were doing so. I fear that the rare condition of these works is now in jeopardy as they have now become part of Philadelphia’s self-declared “museum mile.”
“Jim Beck used to say that the experience between the artwork, and by extension the artist, and the viewer is a fragile one, an experience that cannot bear the weight of other agendas like blockbuster tours and “civic boosterism”. ArtWatch was founded to “speak for the art.” As the Barnes Foundation and Burrell Collection demonstrate, there will always be a need for that voice to be heard and I am glad to be a part of that effort.”
In his closing remarks Nick Tinari evoked one of James Beck’s greatest fears: that Art’s welfare is increasingly considered secondary to that of certain vested interests and professional groups. A key and modish contention employed by those who would overturn Burrell’s prohibition on foreign loans is that they wish to increase “access” to art – when art can only ever be in one place at a time and shuttling it around necessarily means that, in addition to being exposed to greatly increased risks, it becomes inaccessible to anyone except professional art handlers for long periods of time between venues, and entirely inaccessible in its home for what can be exremely long periods. A second contention (which we examine in a forthcoming post) is that shuffling art around facilitates scholarship. Many have complained that the scholarship connected with blockbuster exhibitions is often poor and meretricious. James Beck further held in the Art Review (“Facts and Fictions of Restoration”, January 1999), that the scholarly spin-off of such exhibitions constitutes a professional inducement to take risks:
“The ‘new’ interpretations of one artist or another which result from the blockbuster offer the art historian the opportunity to participate in the resulting symposia and international congresses. The same is true of following the restorations of well-known or important works. These too require a whole new apparatus. What art specialist would be willing to forego a role in these activities? This would mean being left out of the massive catalogues that usually accompany art spectaculars. For those who enjoy it, there also opportunities to participate in television interviews or appear on any CD-ROM merchandise. Each of these can involve substantial compensation.”
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Betraying Burrell – Shame on Glasgow
It would seem that the arts (along with sport) have been “nationalised”, or more precisely, municipalised, in Glasgow. Both spheres have been brought under the control of a hybrid entity known as “Glasgow Life” which is both a company and a charity with the formal title “Culture and Sport Glasgow”. The directors and trustees of Glasgow Life are appointed by the Council. Glasgow City Council manages the Burrell Collection and the City’s other museums through this body. In the case of the Burrell Collection, Glasgow Life has established an intermediary overseeing body known as “Burrell Renaissance”, the chair of which is a member of Glasgow Life’s own, Council-appointed board of directors. Glasgow City Council is promoting a private bill in the Scottish Parliament to remove the prohibition on foreign loans that was stipulated by Sir William Burrell when he gifted his entire collection (of some 8,000 works) to the city of Glasgow in a will of 1944 and in a later Memorandum of Agreement.
When we were invited to give evidence to a hearing on the bill in the Scottish Parliament on 19 September we attempted to speak to the curators of the Burrell Collection at the museum itself on 18 September. Contact had to be made through Glasgow Life. After inquiries by that body on the nature of our interest, arrangement was made to meet two Glasgow Life officers (in the event three) at the Burrell Collection with no museum curators present. We had hoped to establish the logic of the development whereby a chronically leaking roof – which requires urgent, immediate action (see right) – had grown into a proposed redevelopment of the museum that would cost £45m and that would require not only that the museum be closed to the public for four years between 2016 and 2020 but that works from the collection would go on foreign tours in hope of raising the profile of the collection and generating “revenue-raising opportunities”.
The private Bill presently before the Scottish Parliament seeks expressly to “remove these restrictions [imposed by Sir William] permanently so that items can be lent and borrowed more freely”. It was explained to us that the purpose of increasing borrowing into the Burrell was to enable curators to put on special exhibitions that would set the Collection’s works into a wider and more scholarly context. However, this proposed move towards what is by now a near universal museum practice is itself problematic because it threatens to disrupt the present unique and very special character of the Collection as bequeathed and as has survived since the museum was opened in 1983 (see below).
The hearings on 19 September were filmed and have been placed in full on YouTube. In the first hearing, the Chair of the Burrell Trustees, Sir Peter Hutchison, and the legal agent of the Trustees, Mr Robert Taylor, presented a case for overturning Burrell’s overseas loans prohibition on a variety of grounds that taken together would cede to Glasgow Life permission to conduct the borrowing and lending policies of the Burrell Collection without hindrance. Both witnesses expressed confidence that a proposed new lending code that has been agreed between Glasgow Life and the Burrell trustees offers sufficient safeguards to “mitigate” (but note, not eliminate) the enduring risks of foreign travel. It was alarming when Sir Peter indicated that while, presently and in compliance with Burrell’s repeatedly asserted wishes and conditions, it is the case that entire categories of vulnerable objects (such as tapestries and pastels) are specifically excluded from permission to travel even within the UK, let alone abroad, in the future (were the Bill to be approved), consideration of what might be loaned both in the UK and abroad would be made not by categories of artefacts but on a “case by case”, object by object basis. This would be done under the provisions of the new lending code which is designed to “harmonise” the collection and to “treat [it] as a single entity”. The justification offered for this radical overturning of previously respected conditions is that within what are recognised as highly vulnerable categories a range of conditions exists in which individual works can vary from great fragility to robust good health. We challenged that notion strongly during the second session and note that in the first session, the Committee’s Convener, Joan McAlpine, pointed out that when the Committee’s members visited the Burrell they had been advised by a textiles conservator how and why textiles are so peculiarly unsuited to the risks of travel.
To our fears that the bill effectively seeks to give carte blanche to those in Glasgow Life who will administer the collection, it can be added that it is not altogether clear where accountability might lie. The relationship between the curators at the Burrell museum and the administrators of Glasgow Life is ambiguous and seems unhealthily lop-sided. Sir Peter offers assurances that, on a successful passage of the Bill, he would expect all parties to work harmoniously together and that if displeased the trustees “could make our views quite clear”. Expectations and expressions of displeasure comprise no guarantees. What became clear under close interrogation by the Committee’s members is that Glasgow Life (which as mentioned is the cultural arm of Glasgow City Council – which body is directly promoting the private bill to overturn Burrell’s prohibition on foreign loans) will have the final say and even the right if challenged to have issues determined on the judgement of such “experts” as it might commission. It seemed unfortunate and not reassuring when Sir Peter likened the future role of the Trustees to that of a long-stop cricket fielder rather than a wicket-keeper. (An awful lot of runs can be conceded without balls crossing the boundary – and besides, in modern cricketing practice, the long-stop position is almost obsolete because wicket keepers are expected to stop all balls that comes along.) Sir Peter accepted that Glasgow and not his trustees should have the final say on the fatalistic grounds that “they already perform that function”. It was not made clear why a Parliamentary bill had been thought necessary at all when, as Selby Whittingham of Donor Watch has subsequently submitted to the inquiry:
“There is no need to enact bills to allow for loosening of conditions. This can be done through the courts, as in the case of the Barnes Collection and by application to the principle of cy-pres. If it can’t be done in the Burrell case, one may ask if the case for changing the restrictions is really a good one.”
Certainly the essential claim that Burrell’s restrictions on foreign loans can now be dropped because of increased safety has not been substantiated. Even Sir Peter, a former insurance man himself, recognised that risks remain and are inescapable. Under these circumstances, as he put it, the Trustees have a duty to assess and “mitigate risks as far as possible”. This seems a defeatist position. As we have pointed out, in a world where technical improvements in aircraft safety are offset by great increases of volume and velocities in museum world art swaps, a need to mitigate risks would arise only if Burrell’s many times expressed prohibition were to be overturned. That need not happen. It should not happen. The Trustees’ lawyer, Mr Taylor launched a technical sophistry in the Committee hearings by suggesting that lending to the Louvre today was little different from lending within Britain. This was presumably on a belief that travelling under the English Channel by rail is no riskier than travelling by road within the UK. He had perhaps failed to recall that the tunnel has already suffered a number of very serious fires – including one in 1996 when many heavy goods vehicles were destroyed.
The record of accidents, as the National Gallery’s director, Nicholas Penny, has offered to demonstrate to the Committee, hardly indicates a new, risk-free universe. In 1987 a cross channel ferry, The Herald of Free Enterprise, collapsed and sank in shallow waters, under calm conditions, with a loss of 191 lives and 47 heavy goods vehicles. Three years earlier the Herald’s sister ship, The Spirit of Free Enterprise, had carried two lorries bearing 267 Turners for an exhibition at the Louvre. In 2000, as Dr Whittingham discovered, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston found its Turner oil painting “Slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying” to be damaged and extremely unstable on return from a loan to the Tate Gallery. Despite the picture having been glazed and sealed according to modern “best practices” against changes in relative humidity, it had “reacted significantly” to the voyage and had lost flakes of paint. It was established that the injury had occurred on the homebound journey. As a Tate spokeswoman acknowledged:
“It arrived here safely where it was examined thoroughly. Its condition was stable”. Incredibly, she added, as if in some exculpation, “Turner’s paintings are notorious for becoming unstable”. Indeed they are – and no gallery knows this better than the Tate. In 1980 the Observer reported that many Turner paintings were too fragile to travel – that barely 100 out of the 279 paintings were fit to “risk being shaken, bumped or dropped in travelling”. As the Tate’s head of conservation, Viscount Dunluce, put it: “Paintings are not designed to travel but to go on a wall. If you send them about in lorries, trains, ships or planes it is bound to have a deleterious effect on them”.
Against Sir Peter Hutchison’s belief that were Burrell alive today he might be happy to “trust his own trustees” to overturn his prohibition on foreign loans, must be set the fact that when two Burrell pictures were sent against his wishes and without his knowledge to Switzerland in 1953, Burrell himself reminded Glasgow Corporation that:
“The Memorandum of Agreement with the Corporation only gives permission to lend items from the collection to any public gallery in Great Britain. That stipulation was made to safeguard the items from damage. Had I known in time it would not have been allowed. It mustn’t occur again.”
That accidents still occur in the air as well as on sea, was the principal force of our own testimony. But all questions of risks aside, the proposed changes do not constitute a well-considered appraisal or culturally desirable end. The impact of the already planned increases of borrowing and lending on the character and the aesthetic appeal of the collection as presently constituted and displayed would likely prove detrimental. That is to say, as Glasgow life explained matters to us, the intention of increased borrowing within the museum (for which borrowing must follow the inevitable quid pro quo of increased lending) is to enable curators to make “more sense” of the works that are held in the collection. This seems an aesthetically and culturally unfortunate form of professional special-pleading. The desire of curators to engage in practices that are becoming near universal within the museum world (but with consequently diminishing results in an international scramble to lay hands on the finite number of plum works) misses or ignores the very traits of the Burrell Collection that are uniquely distinctive and attractive.
What is so remarkable and special about the Burrell collection is that although very large as a private collection, at over 8,000 objects, by its catholic nature it comprises in miniature an easily accessible and digestible cultural “over-view” that is otherwise only available in the grandest “encyclopedic museums”. It should be more widely appreciated (and acknowledged) that nowhere else is it possible to move so effortlessly and rewardingly between great and beautiful artefacts drawn from so many of the world’s great cultures without risking the physical and mental fatigue that so easily sets in when moving through the vast halls and din of traipsing tourist parties of a British Museum, Louvre or Metropolitan Museum. At the Burrell museum, for all its current technical deficiencies and its aesthetically over-asserted means of construction, the building nonetheless has a kind of grace and ease of navigation that is immensely conducive to aesthetic contemplation and enjoyment. The contents of the beautiful classically housed Freer Gallery in Washington afford a similarly high aesthetic payload, but do so on a much narrower palette of art and cultures. The Burrell offers the chance to enjoy, compare and evaluate disparate cultures through a collection of works of remarkably high quality (as is here indicated right without any captions – and without reference to whole treasuries of works in the collection such as tapestries, stained glass, silver and furniture) that is uniquely accessible. This collection should properly and attentively be cherished for what it is and for what it offers and facilitates. It should not be exposed to disruption, adulteration and very greatly increased risks to the works themselves for the sake of turning it, at inordinate costs, into something more common place and altogether less enchanting and special.
At the James Beck Memorial Lecture in London on September 30th (see details opposite), the Frank Mason Prize is to be awarded to Nicholas Tinari for his role in opposing the changes made at the Barnes Foundation. (To see his submission to the Scottish Parliament, and those of Donor Watch, ArtWatch UK and others, click here.) In response, Mr Tinari will discuss in brief the lessons for those presently seeking a comparably radical overturning of the terms of governance of the Burrell Collection. Under sharp questioning from the Committee members, led by the Convenor, Joan McAlpine, at the Scottish Parliament on 19 September, Sir Peter Hutchison showed signs of anxiety that money raised by a world tour of works from the Burrell Collection could fall short of that being committed to fund not just repairs to the roof but a greatly more ambitious development of the Burrell’s building. If that were to be the case, could Glasgow City Council be relied upon to pick up a likely deficit of some £40m?
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Protecting the Burrell Collection ~ A Blast against Risk-Deniers
In a remarkable development the National Gallery’s director, Nicholas Penny, has served notice to the trustees of the Burrell Collection of the grave risks they would be undertaking if they were to loan the collection abroad against the terms of Sir William Burrell’s magnificent 1944 bequest to the city of Glasgow.
As the Herald Scotland reports (6 September), Dr Penny has attacked the “deplorable tendency” for museum staffs to deny the grave risks that are run when works of art are transported around the world. In his submission to the Scottish Parliament committee now considering the bill to overturn the terms of Burrell’s bequest and his specific prohibition on overseas loans (to which committee we will be appearing as a witness this month), Penny, who has had knowledge of 10 major accidents during his career in museums and galleries in Britain and the US, offered to give details of the cases, in confidence to a trustworthy individual to be nominated by the Scottish Government. News of this offer and of Penny’s views broke when Herald Scotland spotted an accidental posting of his submission on the Scottish Parliament’s website.
Unsurprisingly, Penny’s bombshell has caused consternation among those wishing to send the collection on tour during a refurbishment of the building in Pollok Park which is expected to take four years and cost £40m. (We have have expressed bemusement in the past at the nicely rounded figures of building restoration costs which so often come in at sums like… £40m.)
The body “Glasgow Life” which runs Glasgow’s museums is reported to have been “flabbergasted by this”. If it is surprising that a museum director should be outspoken on this sensitive subject which involves a number of art world vested interests, there can be no surprise to readers of this site about the reality of the risks and the adverse material consequences of which Penny complains. In honour of Artwatch International’s founder, the late Professor James Beck, the Autumn 2007 ArtWatch UK Journal (No 22) carried a thirteen pages long report on the dangers of art loans – “Blockbuster Exhibitions: the Hidden Costs and Perils”, by Michael Daley and Michael Savage. For the full text of the report, click on this PDF. (Michael Savage has posted a response to Penny’s intervention on his Grumpy Art Historian blog.) On 13 December 2010, in response to an appeal from Polish curators and conservators to help halt a further loan of Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine (“An Appeal from Poland”), we disclosed the extent of an injury to a panel painting by Beccafumi that was dropped and smashed when being dismantled from a temporary exhibition at the National Gallery (see top, right). That photograph (and an internal report on the incident) had been given to Artwatch by Dr Penny when we commented in our Journal on news of the incident carried on the National Gallery’s website.
On 11 July 2011 we reported (“Questions and Grey Answers on the Tate Gallery’s recovered Turners”) on how the Tate had paid a £3.5m ransom to Serbian gangsters in order to recover two Turner paintings that had been stolen when sent (without a Tate courier) to a small, badly protected German gallery.
The Herald Scotland reports that Glasgow Life is proud to have “formed a partnership with the British Museum, one of the leading authorities on loaning items, to benefit from its expertise”.
It is true that under its present director, Neil MacGregor, the British Museum is a hyper-active dispatcher of art around the globe (- over 4,000 objects in 2006 alone). It should be appreciated, however, that practice does not make perfect in this hazardous arena. As described in our Journal 22 report, when the British Museum packed the peerless, desperately fragile Nimrud Palace alabaster relief carvings and sent them all to Shanghai in two cargo Jets (which broke their 16 hours flights with a stopover in Azerbaijan), it was discovered on arrival that the recipient museum’s low doorways were too low. No one, presumably, had thought to measure them first. It was further discovered that the host museum’s lifts were inadequate. In consequence, the crated carvings had to be “rolled in through the front door – which meant that we had to get a mobile crane to get them up the stairs”, the British Museum’s senior heavy-objects handler, Darren Day, explained in one of the museum’s self-promotional television programmes. When the collection was finally unpacked it was found that “a few little conservation things had to be done.” When crated Chinese terra cotta warriors arrived on loan at the British Museum, they, too, would not pass through the door of the reading room, even when the door’s frame was removed – some expertise?
A restorer in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, has claimed that there is a professional concept of “acceptable potential loss” with regard to loans. As described in our 8 February 2011 post (“The European Commission’s way of moving works of art around”), since 2003 it has been a declared ambition of the European Commission to “facilitate”, “encourage”, “promote” and make “easy” the “mobility of art collections” within Europe. To this end, the EU urges that loaned works of art not be insured, on the extraordinary conviction that accidents can always be remedied: “in many cases, after the exhibits have been restored, only experts can assess the alteration resulting from the damage. The restored artworks can therefore be exhibited as they are.”
The simpliste Eurocratic view of restoration is the more alarming because, travel accidents aside, with increased volumes and velocities of loans come an explosion of needless, often themselves destructive, conservation and restoration “treatments” that are undertaken prior to loan exhibitions as lenders seek to protect themselves by having their works “put in condition” for travel. This is done in order to be able to identify and establish (for insurance or blame-allocation purposes) the origin of subsequent injuries. Unfortunately, putting works into restorers hands in such bids to attain supposedly optimally secure condition for travelling itself presents hazards. We discussed one of the most spectacular examples of needless injury in our post of 8 January 2011. On that occasion an owner put his prized and beloved Renoir into the hands of a pair of leading restorers simply to lay a couple of small blisters and then to dispatch the picture from Washington to Paris. The restorers, without any authorisation, presumed to clean, reline (and wreck) the painting, Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, as the distraught owner, Duncan Phillips, later confessed. On arrival in Paris, the newly restored Renoir was at first rejected as a Renoir. Having long enjoyed pride of place in the home of the great collector, Phillips moved it on its return from Paris into an anteroom. Today it enjoys pride of a place in a hideous over-scaled modern extension to the delightful period house that Phillips bequeathed, along with his collection. The present administrators of the museum have refused all requests to inspect the records of treatment on that painting, and, generally seem rather more animated by mounting their own special exhibitions than in ministering to the original and perfectly self-sufficient collection:
“Intersections is a series of contemporary art projects that explores —as the title suggests— the intriguing intersections between old and new traditions, modern and contemporary art practices, and museum spaces and artistic interventions. Whether engaging with the permanent collection or diverse spaces in the museum, the projects suggest new relationships with their own surprises.
“Many of the projects also riff on the nontraditional nature of the museum’s galleries, sometimes activating spaces that are not typical exhibition areas with art produced specifically for those locations.”
Burrell be warned. Awful as recent “developments” at the Phillips have been, the United States has witnessed an even greater betrayal of a bequest: the wresting of the entire contents of the Barnes Collection from its, also bequested, delightful purpose-built original home and grounds, in order to place it in a worse than awful modernist pile a few miles away, hard by a noisy polluting freeway in the centre of Philadelphia. The denouement of the Barnes Bequest hike began (as is proposed at the Burrell) with a vast international travelling exhibition. At the Barnes, as now at the Burrell, the jaunt was premised on the morally-coercive “conservation” justification of putting the building itself “into condition” on behalf of the great collection of works. Humbug has rarely appeared so rank. The specially commissioned “site specific” Matisse mural was detached from the walls of the museum, packed on a flat-bed, open truck – against all reassuring conservation-compatible promises – and carried at an angle (see photographs, right) to Washington. Nick Tinari, who is to submit testimony to the Burrell Inquiry, has informed ArtWatch “I can state unequivocally that damage was done on the tour to the Matisse mural, the Seurat Models and a Picasso. I have documentation for all three.” Tinari further points out that, as with the intended Burrell tour, the Barnes tour – which netted $7m – breached the benefactor’s express prohibition on foreign loans. Far from serving to make the collection safe, that earlier exercise paved the way to a full takeover. More generally, it served as a template for trustees everywhere who might wish to harvest cash value that is otherwise locked into permanently housed works of art.
Clearly, Dr Penny’s intervention addresses much more than the welfare of the Burrell Collection, precious and vulnerable though it is. It is greatly to Penny’s credit that he should have spoken in such frank (and brave) terms. It is also greatly to the credit of the Scottish Parliament that it should be engaging in such an open exercise before another art world horse may be induced to bolt.
On 7 September, Herald Scotland reported the submission of written evidence made by Dr Selby Whittingham of Donor Watch:
“Dr Selby Whittingham, of Donor Watch, says in his submission: ‘There can be a case for departing from the terms of a bequest when those are incapable of being carried out wholly or safely … but that does not apply in the Burrell case in this instance.
‘This bill is a consequence of the current vogue for loan exhibitions and for using outward loans as barter for inward loans. This vogue is not wholly benign. It deprives visitors to a museum of works which they may expect to see. And we are not convinced that the transport of works of art is as free from hazard as the advocates of this measure optimistically maintain…’”
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Technological advances are often over-sold and deployed in haste. As Nicholson Baker famously showed in his book Double Fold ~ Libraries and the Assault on Paper, countless books, magazines and newspapers were destroyed when microfilm seemed (falsely) to be a better, more durable, more economical means of storing their “information”. The BBC discarded much irreplaceable historic material which, having been shot in black and white, was held technically obsolete on the arrival of colour productions. As we reported on February 28, 2012 (“Shedding archival records at the Tate and the Victoria and Albert Museum”), the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art had recently received a phone call from a Tate employee who said “you might like the curatorial photo archive because we’re about to throw it on to a skip”. We subsequently learnt that the threat to archival material was more widespread and that it was being strongly resisted. Technical advances and their attendant risks are not abating. Here, the painter and ArtWatch UK Journal’s picture/photography analyst, Gareth Hawker (- see his post of 10 January 2011 on photography in museums), discusses some of the dangers posed to archives by breath-taking but commercially driven and insufficiently examined technical developments in digital photography.
Gareth Hawker writes:
The benefits of digitising archives can seem immense: the archives become easier to index and retrieve than the original documents, and copies may be sent anywhere in the world almost instantly. These advantages can appear so dazzling that the risks of digitising may be disregarded, especially by institutions which lack the funding and the expertise which the major museums can call upon. For those with low budgets and little experience in digitising their archives, several groups have issued guidelines – the “Western States Digital Imaging Best Practices” [Endnote 1] being among the best known. These practices have been taken as the basis for a number of instruction manuals, notably one written by Jim Kennedy . He provides plenty of useful advice but, while he does mention the risks involved, the bulk of his manual describes ways in which an image may be manipulated. An inexperienced archivist may get immersed in this part of the book and, in his enthusiasm for manipulation, throw away the original file.
It is true that the original archive file may not be suitable for all uses, for example a publisher may wish to enhance the image – perhaps by increasing contrast and removing blemishes – so that it would look better in a book or on the Internet. The resulting picture can look quite different from the archive image, but a researcher should always be able to track back to the unaltered original and check through any changes that may have been made. Ensuring that this is possible is known as maintaining image integrity. Digital images are intrinsically more proof against tampering than analogue images, but only if they are stored with the audit trail which records the changes, if any, which have been made to the original digital file. The construction of an audit trail is described in the Adobe document, “Digital Image Integrity” . However, among the procedures which the “Western States Digital Imaging Best Practices” document lists as ‘best practice’ it includes deleting the original file, and keeping only the manipulated version as a ‘master-file’. This invalidates the file as an archive, especially if the original photographic print or transparency has also been thrown away.
Jim Kennedy writes:
“Best practice is:
(a) to make a master image that has tone and color carefully adjusted to correct fading and exposure, or
(b) to make a master image that represents the tone and color for the physical condition of the item at the time of digitization without correction of fading or exposure. The choice depends upon the goals and resources for the project, with the second option requiring more extensive resources to create and maintain large files that may never be used and include reference targets when possible.
Both types of master images could be included in an archive. …”
Clearly choosing option (b) is vital for a serious image archive. Relative to the cost of time spent in scanning and filing, the cost of storage on a disc or drive is tiny; but throwing out the original file can cause confusion for ever after. The archivist who is pressed for time need not make any of the manipulations which the guidelines suggest. These could be postponed until someone wanted to adjust a copy of the archive file for a specific purpose, leaving the original untouched.
The task of preserving the new digital records presents new problems. Hard drives and discs become corrupt with the passage of time, so the data on them needs to be transferred to a new set of drives or discs before it is lost. The entire archive needs to be transferred frequently – every two to four years according to some authorities. There is a danger that someone may forget to transfer the data and that it will all be lost. This is a good argument for keeping the original, non-digital documents, but one which is sometimes overlooked. For anyone thinking of digitising a collection, David Saunders’ chapter on the subject of preserving records, “Image Documentation for Paintings Conservation” in Conservation of Easel Paintings (Eds. Stoner and Rushfield), provides a summary of this and other considerations which would be worth bearing in mind.
One consideration is the quality of the digital files themselves. The resolution of a digital photograph or scan is likely to be far lower than that of an old-fashioned photographic print – even one of poor quality. The amount of data lost if the original print or transparency is thrown away is incalculable. In addition, new techniques may be able to retrieve even more data from the originals than was ever imagined. Destroying the original documents will close off this possibility forever. Keeping the print-out of a digital document (‘hard copy’) may be advisable, but is an inadequate substitute for keeping the original, pre-digital document.
As an indication of the types of falsification that the writers of the ‘Western States Digital Imaging Best Practices’ consider acceptable, see the examples at right. A researcher looking at a ‘master image’ would have no way of distinguishing between what was a true record, and what had been doctored.
These doctoring procedures would invalidate photography as a means by which to examine how paintings had changed over time. This would represent a disaster for historians, and a blessed relief to any restorer who wanted his blunders to be forgotten. Restorers themselves rarely seem to look critically at ‘before’ and ‘after ‘photographs of the paintings that they work on, while museums often keep only haphazard photographic records of the works in their collections. The Rembrandt  and Raphael  databases give some idea of how incomplete these records may be. Perhaps this directionless attitude to record-keeping derives partly from the restorers themselves, who do not often attach much importance to comparing ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs. Most restorers prefer to monitor their own work according to what they see through the microscope, informed by their own experience and training – but without any objective standard against which to measure the result of their actions. Few restorers outside the major museums take high-resolution ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs of the paintings they work on, though they may take snapshots which are low in resolution, unevenly lit, and inaccurate in colour. Not having accurate ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs available – and, when they are available, not being practised at examining them – most restorers have little opportunity to assess the extent to which their work has damaged a painting.
Thus the importance of photographs may be underestimated, and the contribution of the archivist undervalued. It is essential that the best possible photographic records be made and maintained if any objective assessment of changes to a painting’s appearance is to be undertaken. An archivist may do well to consider keeping original, pre-digital documents, and resisting the temptation to become completely dependant on the computer.
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Farewell, then, Fine Old Sindie Arts Coverage
Our old journalistic alma mater, the Independent on Sunday, is to chop its arts coverage, the Guardian Media reveals. How very sad. The treatment of the arts in the Independent and its younger sister, the Independent on Sunday earned instant credibility when the papers were launched. If we may say so, in a ground-breaking article of 25 March 1990, (see our post of May 27, Fig. 12, “Funny Business at the Sistine Chapel: Has Michelangelo Been Found or Lost?”), the Independent on Sunday, under its arts editor, Michael Church, carried our first of many exposes on the destructive restorations of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling and at the National Gallery. From the start, under its founding art editor, Michael Crozier, the two newspapers’ uses of photography and illustration were bold and invigorating. The Independent’s first but now-departing arts editor, Tom Sutcliffe, assembled a crack array of stylish contributors – Mark Steyn, Sebastian Faulks, Bayan Northcott, Fiona Maddocks, Mark Lawson and Andrew Graham-Dixon, among many. It’s all desperately sad. This latest cull of critics of art, film, music and theatre shows a costs-cutting newspaper devouring its own soul. For a few decades the arts had come to matter there more than anywhere in Fleet Street.
There is little consolation to be had in these developments but the reported plaint from arts publicist Alison Wright suggests one possible chink of gratification in the gloom:
“Publicly funded arts organisations rely on intelligent arts criticism and critical appraisals of their exhibitions and events not only to attract audiences, but also for their funding applications and to attract sponsors and donors.”
Indeed they do – and how they do – but as tears are shed, led them be shed for all sectors of the arts, for private galleries as well as public, for all art lovers and players, and not just for, or especially for, the special-pleaders of the feather-bedded public sector that has too often seen its raison d’être to be the undermining of traditional disciplines and anything that might be taken for a conservative and un-edgy taste.
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The Sistine Chapel Restorations, Part III: Cutting Michelangelo Down to Size
“Judging by Past Experience, it is Perilous to Suggest Restoration…”
~ Charles Heath Wilson, 1881, “The Life and Works of Michelangelo Buonarroti”. Publisher: John Murray, London.
“I once barged into a correspondence in The Times when the National Gallery was under fire from the ‘anti-cleaners’. I was ticked off very severely by Lord Crawford, the Chairman of the Trustees. I had, mildly I thought, criticised the authorities for ignoring the sincerely held views of the opposition…I was later restored to favour in high places when I made it clear in an article in The Studio that I was convinced that our National Treasures were in the keeping of qualified responsible people.”
T. J. Honeyman, 1971, “Art and Audacity”. Publisher: Collins, London.
It is not widely appreciated how inherently dangerous art restoration practices remain, or how culturally deranging restoration changes can be. At the bottom end of the trade, restorers often advertise their services on a promise to leave pictures “as good as new – or better”. The restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling was – on the accounts of its own restorers and initiators – the biggest, the best, the most scientifically advanced and “radically transforming” top-end restoration ever undertaken. This “Restoration of the Century” left one of the world’s greatest artistic accomplishments so profoundly unlike its former self that enthusiasts could announce the discovery of a “New Michelangelo” who was “very different from the one art experts thought they knew”. At the same time, the chief restorer thrilled in 1982 that the frescoes looked as good as new: “as though they were executed yesterday”. In the midst of this commonplace restorers’ confusion between “recoveries” and “discoveries” (or sometimes, “revelations”), some surprising expressions of support materialised. In 1987, a top-end art historian writing in the magazine Apollo [Endnote 1] announced the demolition of the “Darkness Fallacy and the Sculptural Fallacy” within Michelangelo scholarship, and predicted that the then concurrent restorations of the Sistine and Brancacci chapels would leave both Michelangelo and Masaccio as “less isolated geniuses” who would be “returned to their respective periods” (i.e. confined within designated art historical boxes). In 1991, a newspaper art critic exulted in the displacement of “doomy outpourings of religious angst” by colours as “bright as Opal Fruits” – which colours reflected the workings of a “much more rational mind” . Unsurprisingly, such professional pleasure-taking in chemical transformations that could cut artistic Titans down to size alarmed those who had been happy with the surviving Michelangelo, and an enormous controversy arose. Unsurprisingly, the criticised characterised the criticisers as instances of “the magnitude of the shock to entrenched opinion” that had been unleashed by a triumphant restoration. (As will be seen, the expression of sincerely held citicisms can be harshly punished when substantial vested conservation interests are challenged.)
Behind this interpretive culture war, the effects of the restoration on Michelangelo’s art were material and aesthetic. Those changes are forever. Although bad scholarship can be remedied by good scholarship, the latter cannot undo damage to unique, historic works. What remains to be done, a third of a century after the restoration’s 1980 launch, is a proper, disinterested aesthetically informed analysis of the restoration-induced changes, item by item, figure by figure, photograph by photograph; and, a frank evaluation and acknowledgement of their cultural and art historical consequences. Had this restoration’s profound transformation been accepted without challenge, we would be in a world today where technicians enjoyed unfettered licence to rewrite (or as they sometimes prefer, “to re-present”) history itself. Even tacit endorsements of injurious restorations can damage scholarship and falsify history.
The restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling was well and publicly defended from 1980 until the mid 1990s. At that period, a seismic shift occurred. What follows is an examination from a British perspective of the restoration’s defences up to 1995 (in which year implicit art historical support for the restoration resulted in a seriously misleading exhibition at the National Gallery); and, a further presentation of visual proofs of the restoration’s injurious consequences. We note here how many supporters have admitted entertaining doubts about the restoration’s probity.
A new cleaning method, and the selling of a “New Michelangelo”
In the 1980s, at the height of an international restoration mania, a supposedly “advanced” “scientific” cleaning material was used on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. It was ferocious in its effects and mechanistic in its application which was expressly designed to thwart personal and allegedly “subjective” and “unscientific”, aesthetic appraisals. The most sophisticated imagery on an immensely important historic work of art was thus subjected to a “treatment” that derived not from the complexities of picture restoration and its necessary acts of discrimination and constant evaluation but, rather, from architectural stone cleaning techniques. This cleaning method altered the ceiling’s centuries old artistic/historic continuity to such a degree that the restorers and their supporters ventured that history would need to be rewritten. The changes, for sure, were dramatic: depictions of figures that had been archetypally and transcendentally alive were brightened, flattened, rendered more abstract, more “on the picture surface” and left with an altogether more modernist and imaginatively impoverished aspect. Contrary to official claims this (demonstrably) was not a liberation or recovery of the ceiling’s original condition and appearance – see, particularly, Figs. 1 and 60.
When Michelangelo’s ceiling was unveiled in 1512 the world was stunned by the grandeur, pictorial audacity and, above all, by figural inventions that had rendered the divine corporeal and vividly alive within our own space and time. Michelangelo had not so much made depictions-on-surfaces as conjured perceived spaces adjacent to the ceiling’s imperfect forms. His optically “sculpted” spaces – which opened vistas beyond the ceiling’s surfaces while simultaneously projecting figures in front of them – had been realised through powers of draughtsmanship and modelling with utter disregard for the “integrity” of the architectural surfaces. Seemingly palpable space was necessary to situate Michelangelo’s monumental programme of over three hundred figures – figures that ran from depicted carved stone sculptures (his architecture-adorning putti), through living, space-occupying young sculptural Adonis’s (his contorted, anxious ignudi) and, more prosaically, through the historical ancestors of Christ, to the divinely gifted Prophets and Sibyls, and finally to God Himself and his celestial supporters. This was immediately acclaimed as a dazzling artistic and illusionistic advance. Its eventual influence was to carry mural painting into the Baroque and beyond. Although artistic fashions and modes of description change constantly, for nearly five centuries this “stupendous” work’s vital relationships endured, as the many copies made throughout its existence testify (see Fig. 1b).
How Doubts became Denials
With the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, while some art world players were galvanized into opposition, many others were excited and swept along by the presumptuous magnitude of the transformation. As mentioned, many of the supporters of the restoration have disclosed moments of doubt. We cited in our post of March 4th that the co-director and chief restorer of the ceiling, Gianluigi Colalucci, had said in 1990: “I must confess I harbour a lingering almost subconscious fear that someday someone will come, unexpectedly, with a really intelligent observation that will show all of us to have been blind.” The following year the Sunday Times art critic, Waldemar Januszczak, produced a celebratory book (“Sayonara Michelangelo”) in which he asked in the face of the transition:
“Who among us looking up for the first time at this new, bright, clear Sistine ceiling, perfectly rational, a light-filled work, was not tempted by the doubt: it can’t be so.”
This temptation was throttled by the sheer spectacle of the restoration as an art-changing performance:
“The thin and neat scaffolding bridge moved elegantly along the ceiling like a very slow windscreen wiper. In front of it lay the old Michelangelo, the great tragedian, all basso profundo and crescendo. Behind it the colourful new one, a lighter touch, a more inventive mind, a higher pitch, alto and diminuendo. It was being able to see both of them at once – Beethoven turning into Mozart before your eyes – that made this restoration such a memorable piece of theatre.”
Even the National Gallery’s thoughtful and scholarly (then) curator of Renaissance painting, Nicholas Penny, who recognised (“White Coats v. Bow Ties”, London Review of Books, 11 February 1993) that “The most terrifying thing about the restoration of old paintings and sculpture, as distinct from the editing of texts, is that something might be lost altogether”, swallowed his own moment of anxiety:
“But perhaps one should admit that something is lost however much is gained by any intervention – some possibility of interpretation if not some actual pigment or glaze or polish.” [Emphasis added.] With a seeming acceptance of such material and interpretive losses, the greater gains in the Sistine Chapel were said by Penny to have emerged as follows:
“Study of the ceiling now that it has been cleaned tends to distance Michelangelo from the art of recent centuries – and from the work of artists who were inspired by the ceiling – and reveals a far closer connection with the dazzling colours favoured by artists in his immediate following and also evident in some of the better-preserved 15-century Florentine panel paintings.”
Note the cultural role being served by “restoration” changes: even when their legitimacy is vehemently challenged, restorations facilitate through “study”, new interpretations and a certain re-shuffling of scholarly furniture. Scholars and restorers invariably say that they have duly considered and rejected the criticisms as ill-informed, but the fact remains that eventually all restorations themselves come to be rejected and undone by later restorers. Indeed the alleged need to undo previous restorations is one of the commonest justifications for a restoration. The net consequence of repeated restorations is not a return to an original condition each time, but a daisy chain of altered alterations, with each successive restoration leaving the given work looking unlike its previously “restored” state. With accumulating alterations, works get thinner and thinner. Insofar as such abraded appearances are acknowledged, they are attributed to previous “rubbing”, or other euphemisms. Losses of original material during restorations (as Penny conceded) are to some degree inevitable. This is because while painters work from supporting canvases or panels upwards, restorers work downwards with their solvents and abrasives towards or beyond pictures’ finished surfaces. Collisions are inevitable.
The “New Michelangelo”
The art historical revisionism that advanced with this restoration might have been plausible had changes of colouring been the only changes, and had any of Michelangelo’s contemporaries noted dazzling colours. By any properly visually alert appraisal, however, the changes were less ones of enhanced chromatic power than of debilitating losses to the ceiling’s initially celebrated dramatic modelling and lighting (see Fig. 60). Although Nicholas Penny acknowledged such objections to the received critical consensus, he nonetheless caricatured them:
“Polemics against the restoration appeal repeatedly to the ideas of chiaroscuro and harmony as artistic absolutes.” The implication that critics were in the grip of a fetishized false artistic consciousness was underscored: “It is painful but important to acknowledge that the inspiration one artist draws from another, earlier one is often inseparable from misunderstanding.” It is a common defence against critics to allege some “misunderstanding” of the “facts” because of ingrained or entrenched prejudices but with this restoration the objections stemmed not from misapprehensions or misplaced adherence to ahistorical idée fixes, but from the fact of the concrete, demonstrable and historically verifiable injuries to the painting.
Further Material Evidence of Injury
Having shown many directly comparative pairs of “before” and “after” restoration photographs as proofs of injury – we further present seven single photographs (Figs. 1 to 6 and 48b), each of which alone testifies to the destruction of the final stages of Michelangelo’s painting. To pinpoint the unsoundness of the restoration’s theoretical underpinning, we also show two other works, one drawn (Fig. 41), one painted (Fig. 47) that seem emblematic of serious critical neglect. It will be argued that insufficient respect for the artistic and documentary records (particularly in the form of graphic copies and related paintings) facilitated an initial misdiagnosis of Michelangelo’s painting methods. In addition, we examine the “macro” consequences in terms of changes to the previous relationships between the broad and differentiated zones of the Sistine Chapel’s consecutively decorated surfaces.
Selling the Restoration and Blocking the Critics
In December 1987 two articles that acknowledged the intensity of the controversy were published in Britain. One was a work of journalism by a leading cultural writer with strong interests in science, Brian Appleyard. The other was a full-blown and frankly declared Public Relations Apologia by Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt, a professor of art history at New York University, a consultant member of the Vatican’s Scientific Advisory Committee on the restoration, and the Vatican’s spokesman on “scholarly and general information” for the public relations firm Arts and Communications Counsellors, which had been retained to handle the crisis.
To take the former first: on 20 December 1987 the Sunday Times magazine carried an article on the restoration – “Lost or Found?”. Its author, Brian Appleyard, acknowledged that he had been “carefully and elaborately briefed” by the co-directors of the restoration, Fabrizio Mancinelli, the curator of the Vatican Museums’ modern paintings, and Gianluigi Colalucci, the head restorer, and by Professor Carlo Pietrangeli, the director of the Vatican Museums, and that the next day he had been “scientifically persuaded” by the Vatican’s chemist, Nazzareno Gabrielli. Nonetheless, Appleyard gave a fair and balanced account, citing the arguments of James Beck, a professor of art history at Columbia University, New York. Even while recognising that “the vast majority of art historians are on the side of the Vatican”, Appleyard concluded “So far the Vatican have been troubled by Beck but have been secure behind the battery of art historians prepared to stand up and oppose him. But his fury and energy are beginning to pay off. More and more awkward questions are beginning to be asked and he warns of more home-grown opposition in Italy.”
An Artist Thwarted
The article itself prompted controversy in Britain by including directly comparative before and after restoration photographs of sections of the frescoes. To this artist’s eyes, those photo-comparisons showed instantly that the “cleaning” was damaging and that the protests were well founded (see Figs. 9 to 11b). Working then as the principal illustrator of the Independent, a new and fashionable newspaper with excellent arts coverage, I asked the arts editor if I might write a short article demonstrating the ways in which the ceiling was being damaged. He declined on grounds that the newspaper’s art critic, Andrew Graham Dixon, had (like Beck) visited the scaffolding, and had been persuaded (like many art historians and critics) that all was fine.
Thus, the first lesson in this controversy was that an artist who had trained for four years in a junior art school, for five years in a fine art college and for three post-graduate years at the Royal Academy Schools – and who afterwards had taught and practised drawing and sculpture for fifteen years – could be unvoiced in a debate about the treatment of a work of art in deference to the views of someone sixteen years younger who had read English at university and art history at the Courtauld Institute (- on which institution’s restorations see “Taking Renoir, Sterling and Francine Clark to the Cleaners”).
An Artist Heeded
When the Independent launched a Sunday edition in 1990, its arts editor invited an article on the Sistine Chapel restoration. In preparation, I contacted James Beck who put me in touch with many key critics. These included, in Italy, Professor Alessandro Conti, Venanzo Crocetti, the sculptor who had worked on the previous restoration of the Sistine ceiling in the 1930s, the restorer Mirella Simonetti; and, in the US, the critic and writer Alexander Eliot and the painter Frank Mason. From the Independent on Sunday I spoke directly to Professor Brandt, Dr Fabrizio Mancinelli, Professor John Shearman, (an advisor to the restoration who viciously attacked Beck on the record and then threatened to sue if I published his grossly defamatory comments), and wrote to Gianluigi Colalucci. The second lesson had thus been that critics of restorations, however prestigious, could find themselves victims of scurrilous attacks from professional peers.
Shooting the Messengers
When surveying the restoration’s then decade long literature, Brandt’s 1987 Apollo article emerged as a seminal document. Its declared purpose had precisely been to defend the “transformation of Michelangelo’s mysterious dark frescoes…into [the] blazing colouristic pyrotechnics that is attracting the most public attention and controversy” (this was despite the fact that Michelangelo had been praised at his own funeral for “the fleeting and sombre colours with which he had formed such rare and lofty shapes”). Most striking of all was Brandt’s assaults on the restoration’s critics, whether they were scholars, restorers, traditionalist artists or fashionably modish artists:
“But, a tiny, heterogeneous and vociferous cadre emerged with the dramatic charge that Vatican conservators are ruining one of the great icons of western civilisation.
“Convinced of the urgency of their mission, the critics conducted their campaign in the international press and television and achieved a remarkable degree of public visibility. A letter by a well-meaning group of American master painters of the Pop generation, calling for a halt to the cleaning of the Sistina (as well as the Last Supper) was one index of their success. An interview with one of the American Sistina critics in People Magazine was, however, another…
“To the ears of most art historians and conservation experts, however, the critics claims sounded more and more like the wild cries of some ferocious mutant of Chicken Little. Many believe that the critics, like that benighted bird, were misunderstanding insufficient evidence to draw mistaken conclusions to the alarm of the neighbours. Still the issue is a serious one. Are the critics merely opportunists, body-surfing on a wave of publicity they would never otherwise have enjoyed? Or should we be hearing in their polemics a warning that the cleaning of major works of art is another of those matters too important to be left to the experts?”
“If the critics’ questions have such detailed answers, what is the continuing public fuss about? Why has the criticism been so remarkably vague, shifting and misinformed? Why have the critics been so reluctant to make the frequent visits to the Sistine Chapel scaffolding…Why does criticism remain invulnerable to the abundant available information. How could such a small group of people, none of whom is – in a professional sense – an expert on Michelangelo and conservation, attract so much publicity and even some well-intentioned adherents? (The original nucleus of nay-sayers consists of only five persons: two painters, one former art critic and two art historians, distributed in Italy and the USA; connexions between them exist but are hard to define.)”
In addition to an insinuation of some underlying conspiracy, Brandt appended an imputation of political motivations that served as platforms for personal opportunism:
“It is easy to see how any hint that the Vatican might be hurting Michelangelo could fuel political fires while providing a chance for professional power play among factions of the intellectual establishment.”
If political motivations combined with personal power play might exist among critics in Italy, Brandt maintained, the situation was different in the United States where:
“The continuing publicity has, of course, also become a phenomenon in itself with a life and fascination of its own. All the more significant that only one American scholar has been tempted to join the public furore.
“None of this grandstanding matters much – although one doesn’t like to see an important issue distorted and people misled. I do not believe that a tenacious campaign of ill-informed criticism and personal attacks on the conservators will stop the careful cleaning of the Ceiling.”
At this historical point Brandt’s past abuse of the critics might best be taken to have been self-answering. Her assurance that “the cleaning chemicals do not actually come into contact with the fresco surface” has not worn well and, besides, was at odds with the chief restorer’s earlier admission that if left on a minute too long the chemicals began devouring the fresco surface and Michelangelo’s shading with it. Similarly, her claim that the restoration had been “spurred by the alarming discovery that the glue layers were contracting as they aged , and were pulling flakes of plaster and pigment away from the surface of Michelangelo’s frescoes” proved an impermanent position. As was later reported in “Art Restoration, The Culture, the Business and the Scandal” (James Beck and Michael Daley, 1993), it had been claimed in 1986 (six years into the restoration) that “various checks [had] ascertained that in several places minute flecks of colour were lifting” and that this had “necessitated an immediate restoration.” In 1987 it was said that extensive areas of flaking were progressively worsening and threatening an imminently “uncontrollable situation”. By 1988 Vatican spokesmen were claiming that the weight of encrustations upon the paint surface was causing it to break away from its ground. By 1989 it was said that the glues had “shrunk and puckered” causing “scabs” to fall away “pulling pigment with them”. It was said that this “slow destruction by glue-pox” was “the Vatican’s principle motivation for cleaning the ceiling”. When we asked Brandt in 1990 how big the puckerings were, she replied “Oh! Some are as big as your hand.” Soon after, in 1991, the problem de-escalated: initial investigations were acknowledged, once more, to have encountered “minute desquamations and loss of pigment.”
Brandt’s patronising claim that “the so-called ‘controversy’ is not actually about facts and issues but is a reflection of culture shock” lamely echoed charges made in earlier restoration controversies. During the National Gallery cleaning controversy in London in the late 1940s the critics were said by the art critic, Eric Newton of the Daily Telegraph, to be suffering from the “shocked eye”, a condition which afflicted “the connoisseur and the artist – the visually sensitive man with a quick eye and profound reverence for what he had seen”. Just as at the Sistine Chapel, Newton’s dismissal of the expertise of creative players was made on the claimed authority of restoration “science”. Such generalised appeals to the authority of science often prove to be empty incantation and Newton volunteered no more than “The purely scientific and technical aspects of the process, however are too complex to describe here.”
In 1857 picture cleanings at the Louvre were defended on the grounds that “It is understandable that the romantic amateur loves the rust and the haze of the varnish, for it has become a veil behind which he can see whatever he desires” (Horsin Déon). One critic of the Louvre’s restorations, Edgar Degas, threatened to produce a pamphlet that would be “a bomb”. When Brandt dismissed the Sistine Chapel critics on the grounds that the controversy was “rather unreal since the arguments against cleaning are mainly nostalgically emotional [while] those on the other side are chemical and scientific” she presented her role as being to “dissolve some of the murky argument and preserve a few facts”. As will be seen, artists and art historians can have distinctly differing views as to what constitutes a “fact” and what a blind prejudice.
The Evidence of Restoration Injuries – and the Surprising Reactions To It
When the Independent on Sunday’s picture desk obtained high-quality colour transparencies from the Vatican in 1990 we examined the image of the Erythraean Sybil, part of which had been shown in Appleyard’s Sunday Times article, and encountered among many losses the restoration-mangled foot seen at Figs. 2 and 3. Those losses and losses to a figure on one of the lunettes were first published in the Independent on Sunday of 25 March 1990 (see Figs. 12, 13 and 14) and then later in the Independent of 20 March 1991, where the arguments against the restoration were put by Daley, Beck, Conti, Eliot and the art historian Bruce Boucher, and balanced by three counter arguments.
Of the latter, Ernst Gombrich was harshest on the critics: “No one is infallible, but I have not the slightest doubt that the overall impression and operation is right, and the critics talk absolute nonsense.” The Courtauld Institute-trained editor of The Art Newspaper, Anna Somers Cocks, condescended that some people liked things to look “romantic and old, and can’t cope with the clarity and brilliance of what the Sistine Chapel looks like now it has been cleaned”. The Courtauld Institute-trained Nicholas Penny said “It’s one of the great revelations of our time but the transformation is so absolutely amazing that it is bound to give some people a shock and I am sympathetic to them being shocked”.
Brandt’s 1987 Apollo account had fallen on well-worked ground in Britain where even art world players with strong track records of being critical of restorations had become supportive of this restoration. The Courtauld Institute-trained restorer Sarah Walden, who had implicitly criticised many of her peers and predecessors in her 1985 book “The Ravished Image ~ Or How to Ruin Masterpieces by Restoration”, was one such and she offered this (simplistic) technical distinction in defence of the restoration’s results:
“Unlike easel paintings, frescos are not a film of paint on a surface but impregnate their own support and need no varnish. Given an intact, dry wall, they are spared many of the rigours of restoration, except for the removal of dust and dirt. As the recent cleaning of Raphael’s Galatea in the Farnesina in Rome has shown, and as the present work on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel seems to confirm, this is one area where impressive results can be had with far less risk.”
As shown on 28 April 2012, the restorer Leonetto Tintori had discovered on examining the ceiling that it had been covered by what he termed “Michelangelo’s auxilliary techniques” which included not just glue or size painting but also oils. Walden, whose principle critical complaints had been against the “Anglo-Saxon” schools of restoration in Germany, Britain and the US, as opposed to the “Latin” restorations of France and Italy , had evidently accepted the restorers’ claims that Michelangelo had simply coloured successive patches of wet and drying plaster at great speed and thereafter accepted whatever disparities and inequalities of value emerged on drying without making any unifying or enriching interventions with glue-based painting a secco on his fresco surfaces when dry, as was customary and as had been noted by his contemporaries. She had further accepted the restorers’ (revisionist and unsupported) claims that the large amounts of glue-based material on Michelangelo’s frescoes had been applied by restorers as a “varnish” to a work which, on her own account, would have required no varnish, and despite the fact that previous Vatican restorers had attributed that very material to Michelangelo. Gombrich, who had played a prominent role in the post-war cleaning controversies at the National Gallery in London – and who had written the Foreword to Walden’s book – was similarly persuaded by the present Vatican restorers’ well disseminated technical account.
Gombrich’s Startling Lapse of Scholarship and Visual Acuity
In 1995 Gombrich presented an exhibition, “Shadows: The Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art”, at the National Gallery (London) on the thesis that an avoidance of cast shadows had been “widespread among painters of the High Renaissance”. He did so without reference to the paintings of Michelangelo or Raphael. (When pressed on these omissions he replied “I never meant [the catalogue] to be an encyclopaedia of all cast shadows, though some of my readers seem to assume so.” – Letter to Michael Daley, 10 June 1995.) As will be shown, in a curious fashion, Gombrich’s pictorial amnesia constituted the logical terminus of a more general denial by art historians of the distinctive artistic relationships that had survived on the pre-restoration ceiling, and of the connections between those relationships and the art forms of the period and immediately afterwards. Defending this restoration became an exercise in not-seeing what was and what had been. Gombrich’s position on this restoration was a great disappointment to us given his outstanding earlier contributions.
Gombrich on the Sanctity of Scholarship
In 1978 as the Vatican Museums’ curators, restorers and scientists were moving towards restoring the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Gombrich had discussed one of Michelangelo’s prophets – his Ezekiel – in the context of problems of art connoisseurship and medical practices (and with no reference to colour) . He pointed out that just as with placebos “suggestibility plays a part in our response to works of art”. Demonstrating by a comparison between Jeremiah and Ezekiel that the latter was uncharacteristic of Michelangelo but characteristic of Raphael, he firmly attributed its execution to Raphael (see Fig. 25). Of all the prophets on the ceiling, he contended, this one alone lacked Michelangelo’s profound stylistic traits: “he always negates the picture plane. Jonah being the most famous example of this space-creating and surface-denying imagination, which so aroused the admiration of Renaissance writers.” How could it have been overlooked, Gombrich continued, that the Ezekiel, far from denying the picture plane, asserted it: “Instead of being self-enclosed it impetuously moves to the right, addressing an unseen partner in what looks like a violent argument. It is this implied movement which tears the cohesion to pieces and introduces a shrill note of drama entirely absent from the other creations. The composition is only superficially Michelangelesque…” Further, what the Ezekiel betrayed in its agitated gestures was Raphael’s own great indebtedness to Leonardo: “Indeed it is hardly too much to say that Ezekiel would fit comfortably into the groups of the apostles in the Last Supper of S. Maria delle Grazie.”
This was vintage Gombrich, learned, conceptually adroit, visually acute and boldly re-attributing a Michelangleo to Raphael through Leonardo. Except that here his elegant arguments and persuasive stylistic “evidence” amounted to no more than a plausible contrivance – a conceit that was, he confessed, an art connoisseur’s equivalent of the medical practitioner’s placebo. He hoped that connoisseurs “will not take offence and that the spirits of Michelangelo and Raphael will forgive me this harmless fabrication.” (Was that jest to become a maquette for a far greater and undisclosed prank on those two great artists seventeen years later?)
Gombrich and the Guardians of Memory
Two decades earlier, in a moving 1957 essay “Art and Scholarship”, Gombrich had championed the scholar as “the guardian of memories”. It seemed that he had been stung to do so by the painter Wyndham Lewis who had recently written:
“When I see a writer, a word man, among a number of painters, I shake my head. For I know he would not be there unless he was up to something. And I know that he will do them no good…”
Gombrich’s retort was: “Why should the artist bother about that spoilsport the scholar and his past? The brief answer to this question, I fear, may sound moralistic. Because truth is better than lies.”
Indeed it is – but this leaves his own later omissions in the National Gallery exhibition the more perplexing: How could so great a scholar make so seriously misleading and unfounded a claim in (seeming) defence of such an unsupportable restoration? Spicing this mystery is the fact, as shown below, that Gombrich’s faith in the Sistine ceiling restoration was not absolute and that he, too, like Colalucci, Januszczak and Penny, had once acknowledged a moment of doubt.
Gombrich’s Moment of Doubt
As mentioned, Gombrich was as one with the views of the restorer Sarah Walden on this restoration. Walden was to persist with her endorsement of the restoration until at least 2004 when, in a revised edition of her book (now titled “The Ravished Image ~ An Introduction to the Art of Picture Restoration & Its Risks”), she pressed Gombrich into a swipe at critics of the Sistine ceiling restoration:
“The subject of restoration tends to attract cranks and fanatics, but to suggest that the world’s foremost art historian was one of those would be absurd. He approved for example of the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel, and wrote to me about an Italian who opposed it and was seeking his support: ‘Of course he wants to use [my writings] as ammunition against the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel, but I do think the problems of cleaning are different…I have been up the scaffold…I have no doubt that the team are aware of the many problems…I am even fairly happy about the work on the Sistine ceiling.’” [Walden’s ellipses.]
While Walden tactfully refrained from identifying the Italian critic, by publishing a letter she received from Gombrich in 1987 in the revised book, she revealed an intriguingly confessional remark:
“Last week I was sent a book from Italy violently attacking the ‘cleaning’ of the Sistine ceiling. It may contain some exaggerations but it is still disquieting. Michelangelo e la Pittoria a Fresco, by Alessandro Conti (La Casa Usher, Florence 1986). If you read Italian and have a little time during the next few weeks I’ll gladly lend it to you to look at.”
That unsettling book was later described by Penny in the LRB as “the most sustained polemic against the restoration”. Charles Hope, an authority on Titian and then the Senior Lecturer in Renaissance Studies at the Warburg Institute, London, wrote (in a letter of 1994 to the restorer Helen Glanville – see below) that “The scholar who has done most to draw attention to the relevant texts is of course Conti; and whatever you think of his book (he is not a restorer, by the way), I am sure we can agree that it is obligatory reading for anyone interested in the controversy surrounding the ceiling. Yet [...] and so on not only pass over his arguments in silence instead of addressing them, they seem never to cite his book at all…” Gombrich, too, would seem to have suppressed his own disquiet and passed over Conti’s arguments even though he must have appreciated that Conti was a very considerable authority on restoration having taught the History and Techniques of Restoration at the University of Bologna; the History of Modern Art at the state university in Milan; and, the History of Art Criticism at the University of Siena. In his 1988 “History of the Restoration and Conservation of Works of Art” (republished by Butterworth in a 2007 English translation by Helen Glanville) Conti spoke of the alien “material and chromatic robe” with which the Sistine ceiling paintings had been invested “during the present restoration” and identified “the various media” Michelangelo had used on the ceiling as “fresco, lime and secco”. (For Conti’s further comments in that book on Domenico Carnevale’s repairs to Michelangelo’s ceiling, see the caption at Figs. 48a and 48b. That his now very scarce Michelangelo e la Pittoria a Fresco has yet to be published in English might itself be thought something of a scandal.)
The Context of Gombrich’s National Gallery Exhibition
Gombrich’s 1995 exhibition came not just towards the end of his long and distinguished career but at the end of a brief period of intense discussions in Britain on the restorations at the Sistine Chapel and the National Gallery. We had been at pains to show that extreme as the Sistine Chapel restoration was, it was part of a wider radically transforming international assault by restorers acting on historic works of art in the name of their “conservation”. (Between 1990 and 1995, this author alone had published twenty-three times on those subjects – see Fig. 12.) Such discussions greatly accelerated with the publication of the 1993 Beck/Daley book “Art Restoration ~ The Culture, the Business and the Scandal” which, in addition to two chapters on the Sistine Chapel carried a chapter on the National Gallery’s restorations. Responses to the book were various and sometimes startling. They prompted an additional chapter, “The Establishment Counterattacks”, in the revised 1996 American paperback edition. We should acknowledge here that the National Gallery, under its present director, Nicholas Penny, as initially under its previous director, Charles Saumarez Smith, has given ArtWatch UK full and most generously helpful access to all conservation and archival records, and that we have drawn heavily on the compendious material on the Gallery’s conservation practices that is provided in the annual Technical Bulletins. Moreover, since 2012 the Gallery has placed much archival material online.
Responses to “Art Restoration, the Culture, the Business and the Scandal”
After his initially even-handed coverage, Brian Appleyard now characterised Beck in the Independent as being “litigious” – even though he had brought no legal actions but had been sued (unsuccessfully) for criminal slander by an Italian sculpture restorer and had faced a possible prison sentence of three years. Appleyard compared the Beck/Daley book unfavourably before its publication – and before he had read it – with Walden’s book of 1985, specifically dismissing its unseen chapters on the Sistine ceiling on a Waldenesque insistence that “The fact that it was largely pure fresco made the cleaning process straightforward.”
On 18 November 1993 the New York Review of Books carried an essay by Charles Hope, on “Art Restoration ~ The Culture, the Business and the Scandal”. Hope (who was later to become, as Gombrich had been, the director of the Warburg Institute), recalled that “like many other art historians” his initial response to the cleaning had been “entirely favourable”, but which confidence, he now confessed, had been “entirely misplaced”. Viewed in their entirety, the cleaned frescoes create “a decidedly disagreeable impression: the colours are gaudy…the figures look crude and often flat and the architecture seems insubstantial and pedantic.” In short, “Restrained grandeur has been replaced by garish confusion” and it was “difficult to believe that the right procedure was adopted.” Worse followed for the restoration establishment. “Restorers are not always particularly well-informed about the history of art nor especially interested in it”, while, for their part, art historians “seldom have the scientific training to judge the full implication of the courses of action proposed to them.”
Perhaps most disturbing to the Sistine Chapel restoration supporters was Hope’s acknowledgement that when “Talking to friends I find that my unease is widely shared; and it is certainly noticeable that the completion of the restoration has not attracted the kind of acclaim that greeted the unveiling of the lunettes.” After the publication of his review, Hope told Beck in a letter (20 November 1993) “You’ll be cheered to know that several art historians have told me, by letter or in person, how glad they were that I had said what I did.” This greatly amplified a note of caution that had already been present in Nicholas Penny’s observations in the LRB nine months earlier:
“I have met few art historians, even among those who are nervous about the cleaning of paintings, who believe that a mistake was made in cleaning the ceiling. Nevertheless, many art lovers were shaken by what has been published on the subject and some have been no less alarmed by what they have seen in the chapel itself.”
A Restorer’s Response
Temperatures rose after Hope’s review. The Art Newspaper allotted four pages in its May 1994 issue for the counter arguments of Helen Glanville, a Courtauld Institute-trained picture restorer who had read Modern Languages at Oxford. Like Brandt seven years earlier in Apollo, Glanville struck a combative tone and a tendentious note by producing accounts of our “Accusations” against which she provided lawyerish “Defences” written in consultation with the authorities. In 1963 Gombrich had complained “Nobody who criticizes the policy of a great institution expects such criticism to be accepted without further argument. What one has the right to expect, however, is that the answer should concern itself with the substance of the criticism.” In language eerily reminiscent of that used against Beck by Shearman, Glanville challenged not only our character but the judgement of those who had supported us: “The most disturbing aspect is that reviews of the book (including that by Charles Hope in the New York Review of Books of 18 November 1993) appear to indicate that even respected members of the art world accept Daley’s presentation of ‘facts’ at face value”.
Hope sent a letter to Glanville explaining that he had been “particularly careful not to take Daley at his word”, that he had checked what I had written on Sebastiano was in accordance with the monograph on the artist by Professor Michael Hirst (of the Courtauld Institute, and a member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for the Restoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling), and also with “the account of the [Sebastiano] restoration in the National Gallery’s Annual Report”. In further reproach, he added “I would have thought it was fairly obvious to anyone familiar with the recent literature that I had done my homework, not least because there are various arguments and texts used in the review which do not figure in the Beck-Daley book at all.  In my review I have tried very hard to be fair to both sides…Having read your article I see nothing that ought to be changed; indeed it would be difficult to see what you actually found objectionable in it…Before I began working on the review my scholarly sympathies were entirely on side of the defenders of the recent restoration, and I was hoping indeed expecting, to be persuaded that my unease at the present appearance of the ceiling was unjustified. But the reverse has happened, and not just because Beck and Daley produced such compelling arguments…” Hope then set out with great clarity the scholarly import of the material evidence we had supplied and which he had found persuasive:
“I was disappointed that you did not discuss directly what seemed to me the most important single type of evidence in the whole controversy, the drawing by Clovio of Jonah [see Fig. 1] and the one at Windsor showing the whole ceiling. Both of these, as you will remember, can be securely dated to no later than 1534, and they both show very specific, well-defined areas of shadow also recorded in the engravings of the sixteenth century and later, which have now disappeared. The important thing is that the drawings predate the engravings, that they were manifestly produced independently of one another, yet they are consistent. If they are misleading in the same way, we need to have some explanation of why this is so, because if Michelangelo did paint shadows of the kind they show, and in the places they show, then Beck and Daley would seem to be vindicated.”
Gombrich’s Denial of Historical Realities
Coming so soon after Hope’s generous and substantial support, Gombrich’s claim, as a scholar with an impeccable record as a critic of restorations, that cast shadows had popped out of existence for the duration of the High Renaissance might have seemed like manna to the National Gallery and the Vatican. Did his historical account not implicitly constitute a most authoritative rebuttal of the Beck-Daley, Hope-supported, central claim that the destruction of Michelangelo’s cast shadows had given historically corroborated proof of injury to the Sistine Chapel ceiling? In so doing, did he not also provide express relief to the restorers themselves? If the shadows had never existed during the High Renaissance, as he was claiming, how could they possibly have been harmed in restoration?
In May 1994 The Art Newspaper published my letter of reply to Glanville’s article. It concluded: “this concern [over restorations] is shared by others. The current director of the Prado, Calvo Serrraller, has condemned the Sistine Chapel restoration as a misguided ‘face-lift’. A restorer in St Petersburg complains of the ‘perniciousness of radical British restoration techniques’. A curator of New York’s Metropolitan Museum condemns the ‘strident tones’ produced by ‘the exuberant cleaning of paint surfaces, for which the National Gallery has unfortunately become famous’. It is a pity that the National Gallery staff are not prepared to debate these matters directly. It is a pity that discussion should be necessary at all when, to educated eyes, the evidence of injury contained in before and after cleaning photographs is so unmissable.” It would seem, (on Gombrich’s recollection – “In the shadow of the masters”, interview, The Art Newspaper, May 1995) that that very month, the National Gallery’s director, Neil MacGregor, approached Gombrich to ask whether he would do an exhibition in the “The Artist’s Eye” series (in which artists assembled and discussed selections of paintings made from within the Gallery’s collection).
Mr MacGregor’s Choice
Gombrich submitted five or six proposals from which, he said, MacGregor “selected shadows”. Thus the National Gallery had obtained an exhibition that purported to explain why the masters of the High Renaissance had opted to “show us a shadowless world”. If the content was helpful to the Gallery, the fact of Gombrich’s participation might have been a greater boon still. As a critic of the Gallery’s restorations during the 1950s and 1960s he had been a dangerous foe. Before becoming the National Gallery’s director, MacGregor, as editor of the Burlington Magazine, had himself been a partisan of restorations and was well aware of Gombrich’s standing in these disputes. In a Burlington editorial in January 1985, MacGregor had written:
“Cleaning controversies are probably the liveliest, and they are certainly the hardiest, of the art world’s perennial topics of discussion. Of course, thefts and exports make bigger headlines, but they lack conversational staying power, just as new record prices slip faster and faster from the memory. But debates on cleaning run and run, this Magazine having been the forum for one of the most celebrated jousts in the early 1960s.”
MacGregor then drew a distinction that marked a crucial advance that picture restorers had made by the 1980s: “Then the key question was how, or even whether, to clean. Now it is more likely to focus on what can be learnt through cleaning about the picture itself.” This rebranding of art restoration, despite all of its inherent risks, as an aid to scholarship had seemed a spectacular professional coup. By the late 1980s museum restorers had forged a common professional alliance with curators in which “discoveries” made in the course of a restoration could be presented to the world through professional journals, museum press releases, and newspaper/television interviews. The National Gallery laid claim for having pioneered the new hybrid discipline known as Technical Art History, in which curators, restorers and scientists pool efforts so as to fly in tight professional formations. In reality, museums and galleries had set themselves a trap – and Gombrich had chosen the worst possible moment to flip sides in the Great Restoration Battles: to talk about what has been learned/discovered requires the production of material, visual evidence and such evidence becomes fair game for examination.
Gombrich’s Case Against the National Gallery’s Restoration Methods
In 1950 Gombrich had drawn attention in a letter to the Burlington Magazine, to a passage in Pliny which described wondrous effects achieved by the legendary painter Apelles when he finished off his pictures with a thinly spread dark coating or “varnish”. How could we be sure, Gombrich asked, that no Renaissance masters had ever emulated the great painter of antiquity by applying similarly toned varnishes to their own works? He received no reply from the National Gallery. Ten years later, he put the question again in his book “Art and Illusion”, this time provoking Helmut Ruhemann, the Gallery’s pioneering exponent of “Total Cleaning”, into a categorical insistence that “there is no evidence for anything so inherently improbable as that a great old master should cover his whole picture with a ‘toning down layer.’”
Gombrich returned to the fray in 1962 in a Burlington Magazine article (“Dark varnishes – Variations on a Theme from Pliny”) contending that even a single instance of tinted overall varnish would undermine the philosophy of the Gallery’s intrusive restorers who presumed to discern and recover originally “intended” effects among the complex, variously degraded, many times altered material layers of old paintings. Gombrich had cited Pliny’s remarkable technically eloquent account of Apelles’ method: “He used to give his pictures when finished a dark coating so thinly spread that, by reflecting, it enhanced the brilliance of the colour while, at the same time, it afforded protection from dust and dirt and was not itself visible except at close quarters. One main purpose was to prevent the brilliance of the colours from offending the eye, since it gave the impression as if the beholder were seeing them through a window of talc, so that he gave from a distance an imperceptible touch of severity to excessively rich colours.” To the National Gallery the suggestion that colour might be suppressed in any degree by an artist was an affronting heresy, and the idea that a dark toning layer might simultaneously render colours individually more brilliant while collectively more unified was an oxymoron.
The Gallery’s then head of conservation science, Joyce Plesters, responded with a long, witheringly dismissive rebuttal in the Burlington (“Dark Varnishes – Some Further Comments”). Professor Gombrich, she insisted, lacked “technical knowledge” and his scholarship was incomplete and misinterpreted. The entire documented history technical history of art – much of which she appeared to quote – showed that “no convincing case” could be made for a single artist ever having emulated Apelles’ tinted varnish. The passage from Pliny, she sniffed, was but a matter of “academic rather than practical importance” – a charge that was echoed by the director, Philip Hendy, in the Gallery’s Annual Report where he disparaged technically ignorant “university art historians”. Plesters grandly offered to “sift” and “throw light” upon any further historical material that Gombrich or others might care to present in future directly to the National Gallery. Once again, a moment of high political danger for the Gallery’s restorers and curators passed: if no evidence existed of artists having used glazes and varnishes in the manner alleged by critics, how could restorers possibly be damaging them?
The controversy slowly subsided into isolated protests such as that of the painter Pietro Annigoni who painted “MURDERERS” onto the doors of the National Gallery, one night in 1970, in protest against what he had described in a 1956 letter to the Times as “atrocious results [that] reveal an incredible absence of sensibility”. But by 1977 it was “game-over”, so to speak. That year the National Gallery felt confident enough to launch its Technical Bulletin in which restoration methods would be described and illustrated. In it, Plesters mused complacently that “one or two readers may recall the furore when the cleaning of discoloured varnishes from paintings…began to find critics”. (On Plesters’ own technical incompetence, see our post of 27 January 2011.) In the same year a former director of the Gallery, Kenneth Clark, pronounced picture cleaning “a battle won” and claimed responsibility for the victory by having installed a “scientific department with all the latest apparatus” at the National Gallery. He had done so, he said, not because he believed in the “application of science to picture cleaning”, but rather because “until quite recently the cleaning of pictures used to arouse extraordinary public indignation, and it was therefore advisable to have in the background what purported to be scientific evidence to ‘prove’ that every precaution had been taken.”
Joyce Plesters died in October 1996. Earlier that year the National Gallery’s Technical Bulletin carried reports of the cleaning of two paintings by Leonardo’s follower Giampietrino. One, his Salome, had suffered the usual weakening of modelling and shading. The other, his Christ carrying his Cross (Fig. 45) had not. Intriguingly, the latter was said to enjoy both “intensity of colour” and a “restrained overall effect” – the very paradoxical effect the Gallery had dismissed as inherently improbable. Even more remarkably, Giampietrino had first built up an “illusion of relief” with “dark translucent glazes”, and then – just like Apelles – had deliberately “restricted his own range of values” with “a final extremely thin overall toning layer consisting of warm dark pigments and black [!] in a medium essentially of walnut oil with a little resin”. The “varnish” was thus virtually identical as a material to the painting itself – which may explain why it had survived for so long. Many, more soluble, resin varnishes with warm dark pigments had been judged to be earlier restorers’ attempt to impart a deceiving “old masters’ glow” after a harsh cleaning…and removed as alien disfigurements.
Conspicuously, the Technical Bulletin reports made no reference to the Burlington Magazine’s celebrated joust of the early 1960s. Had the Gallery privately informed its recently honoured guest exhibitor of his belated vindication, we wondered? It had not. When we informed Gombrich of this technical corroboration, he replied:
“Many thanks for your letter. I happen to have a birthday these days (87, alas!) and I could hardly have a nicer present than the information you sent me. I don’t ever see the N. G. Technical Bulletin and would have missed their final conversion to an obvious truth! Better late, than never. There is more joy in heaven (or Briardale gardens)…”
We published an account of the National Gallery’s remarkable discovery, and of Gombrich’s response to it, in the November 1998 Art Review (“The Unvarnished Truth”). Three years later in a prefatory remark for the revised 2004 edition of Walden’s book “The Ravished Image”, Gombrich announced: “It is now clear that the position I took forty nine years ago in this matter has been vindicated”. As, indeed, it had been, but curiously, Gombrich declined to mention the fact that an exact analogue of Apelles’ reported practice had been discovered on the work of an associate of Leonardo’s within the conservation studios of the Gallery which had originally dismissed his claims but recently honoured him with an “autograph” exhibition. Instead, he attributed his vindication to research reported five years later in a Burlington Magazine article of January 2001 on work conducted in the conservation studios of the Getty Museum. The article, “‘Amber Varnish’ and Orazio Gentileschi’s ‘Lot and His Daughters’”, by Mark Leonard, Narayan Khandekar and Dawson W. Carr, was certainly an important document. It reported that underneath a thick recent, disfiguring but easily soluble varnish, an older thinner much tougher (but still soluble) varnish “remained directly on the paint surface in many areas.” Examinations of paint samples established that “in some areas at least”, this varnish layer had been applied “very early in the life of the painting”, if not originally.
It had been found that in areas where sections of this early, possibly original varnish had been removed in earlier cleanings, the artistic consequences had been devastating:
“One particularly prominent loss was in the neck of the daughter at the left. The older varnish remained intact throughout the face, yet at the line of the chin it had been broken through, and removed throughout the rest of the neck. To the naked eye, it looked as if the final layer of modelling in the neck had been ripped from the surface. Although the preparatory flesh tones were still intact, the carefully nuanced sculptural solidity found throughout the rest of the face was missing.”
Although no one noticed it, this last remark echoed and corroborated Annigoni’s Times complaint of 1956 that restorers at the National Gallery pronounce “miracles” when “brilliant colours begin to appear“. Unfortunately, he continued, “what they have found are nothing but the preparative tones, sometimes even of the first sketch, on which the artist has worked carefully, giving the best that is in him, in preparation for the execution of the finished work.”
Welcome as such recent confirmations of longstanding claims by artist and art historian critics of restorations are, it should be noted to how great an extent they are arising after the horse had bolted. The National Gallery has yet to disown any of its post-war restorations – in which period it has restored and often re-restored almost its entire collection and often to seriously deleterious effects (see Figs. 55 to 59b by way of example). As the unwisdom of stripping off old varnishes finally begins to gain acceptance in restoration and curatorial circles, the fact remains that had artists’ testimony been heeded, not only would the ponderous and hugely expensive particle accelerators and other “diagnostic” apparatuses of modern museum conservation departments not have been needed, but that much of our visual cultural patrimony could far sooner have been spared mistreatment. Even before Gombrich’s first 1950 letter to the Burlington, in 1946, a painter, Laura Knight, had explained the intrinsic dangers of picture cleaning with perfectly calm “hands-on” knowledge and clarity in a letter to the Times (27 November):
“With the exception of direct painting, a comparatively modern method, a painter builds his pigment onto canvas or panel – always with the final effect in view. The actual surface of a picture is the picture as it leaves the artist’s hand. The varnish which finally covers the work for protection to a varying extent amalgamates with the paint underneath. Therefore drastic cleaning – the removal of the covering varnish – is bound to remove also this surface painting and should never be undertaken.”
Although Gombrich might well once again have been feeling that “There is more joy in heaven…” this early or original Getty Museum Varnish had not corroborated his Apelles’ thesis to the same degree as the National Gallery’s research on the Giampietrino. There, the surviving original “varnish” layer was not simply naturally discoloured but had been deliberately loaded with “warm dark pigments and black”.
Had Gombrich learned of his own vindication on this point a decade sooner, he might perhaps have been less censorious of those who claimed that Michelangelo, too, had toned down his own colours with black pigment on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. He might even have been less easily persuaded that Michelangelo had confined himself to painting into wet plaster with waterbound pigments. For that matter, even as late as 1993, had Gombrich heeded (as had done his successor at the Warburg Institute, Charles Hope), the hard evidence we presented in “Art Restoration” that the most massively extensive applications of original dark toning layers had occurred on the greatest masterpiece of the High Renaissance – Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling – he might have enjoyed his sense of vindication sooner . He might also then have appreciated that the very technical proof of the antiquity of the discoloured layer on the Orazio Gentileschi painting (the fact that this layer had not run into pre-existing age cracks) had been observed more than a century earlier on the surface of Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling; that the ceiling’s controversially removed a secco passages had, in fact, precisely passed the Getty Cracks Test. As Charles Heath Wilson had discovered and reported when examining the ceiling within touching distance:
“There can be no doubt that nearly all of this work is contemporary, and in one part only was there evidence of a later and incapable hand. The size colour has cracked as the plaster has cracked, but apart from this appearance of age, the retouchings have all the characteristics of original work.”
Where Brandt had reported in her influential Apollo article that while the restorers had been on the lookout for “the famous secchi”… “they were surprised not find a secco passages”, Wilson had found it without any difficulty (and without any hi-tech apparatus) because: “Retouches in size-colour are easily recognised. Pure fresco has a metallic lustre, but the retouches are opaque. They are also necessarily painted differently from the fresco, have a sketchy appearance, with hard edges, or are hatched [see Fig. 34] where an attempt is made to graduate them.”
Perhaps, even after twenty further years of campaigning, we might need to re-emphasize that earlier testimony of Wilson’s: the size colour had cracked as the plaster had cracked. The glue/size had not run into any pre-existing cracks. That is to say, the size colour had been applied before the plaster had cracked. The plaster is known to have cracked before any restorers went near the ceiling. Ergo, the size colour could only have been applied when the ceiling was new – and therefore Michelangelo alone could have been the author of the secco painting that lay so clearly to view on the dry surface of his frescoes. This hard technical proof cross-links with the even earlier artistic corroboration of Michelangelo’s authorship of the shading and the cast shadows that was found in Clovio’s beautiful hand-drawn sketch of the Jonah shown at Fig. 1. Moreover, had Gombrich heeded our 1993 account, he would also have appreciated that Wilson had, a century earlier, precisely confirmed his Apelles’ dark toning thesis, insofar as Michelangelo’s extensive secco paintwork had been observed to have “consisted of a finely ground black, mixed with a size”.
By accepting Wilson’s firsthand testimony, Gombrich would further have appreciated, pace Mrs Walden, that Michelangelo had put this secco work to the following extensive artistic ends:
“The shadows of the draperies have been boldly and solidly retouched with this size colour, as well as the shadows on the backgrounds. This is the case not only in the groups of the Prophets and Sibyls, but also in the ancestors of Christ in the lunettes and the ornamental portions are retouched in the same way. The hair of the heads and the beards of many of the figures are finished in size colour, whilst the shadows are also thus strengthened, other parts are glazed with the same material, and even portions of the fresco are passed over with the size, without any admixture of colour, precisely as the force of watercolour drawings is increased with washes of gum…These retouchings, as usual with all the masters of the art at the time, constituted the finishing process or as Condivi expresses it, alluding to it in the history of these frescoes, ‘l’ultima mano’. They were evidently all done at the same time and therefore when the scaffold was in place.”
And not only! He would have seen an anticipation of the Getty Museum Optical Identification of Aesthetic Injuries Method. That is, Wilson had testified precisely that the faces of the Prophets Daniel and Jeremiah had “undoubtedly been injured by rude hands, suggesting that glazing has been partially or entirely swept away”. Specifically: “The face of Jeremiah seems colourless and painted in black and white only: that the face of Daniel is blotched with brown marks.”
Gombrich had thus been magnificently vindicated twice over on his Apelles Thesis: once on the testimony of a close follower of Leonardo, and once on the testimony of the mighty Michelangelo. He had very graciously accepted news from us of the (lesser) confirmation from within the National Gallery. How sad it is that he had left himself unable to lay rightful claim to the vastly more substantial example of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings. How sad, too, that in defending his error of judgement on Michelangelo, he should have obliged himself to unperson the artistic legacy of the twin giants Michelangelo and Raphael in order to mount an incoherent untenable shabby little exhibition at the National Gallery.
Sad as this all is, even now, it is not yet the end of the tragedy. Art historians and their (reversible) tribulations aside, how terrifying it remains that the consequence of the destruction of the precious historic/artistic material that comprised the finishing stages of Michelangelo’s own paintings (and which had protected the fresco surfaces for hundreds of years) is that the remaining now stripped-bare surfaces have been left prey to a persisting polluted atmospheric stew for which no solution has been found by the Vatican’s technical and scientific wizards after two decades of assurances – and twenty-six years after Prof. Brandt disclosed in Apollo that “I have urged repeatedly that problems of climate and pollution control in the Sistine Chapel be given higher priority.” In our post of 21 January, “Setting the Scene, Packing Them In” we cited reports that as many as 20,000 visitors a day were being run through the Chapel. Already, we are outdated. More recent reports put the daily total as high as 30,000 – and report a new pestilence: pickpockets operating within the Pope’s private chapel.
1. “The Sistine ceiling and the Critics”, David Ekserdjian, December 1987.
2. Wldemar Januszczak, “Sayonara Michelangelo”, 1991. Publisher: Bloomsbury, London.
3. The force of this distinction masked certain inconsistencies. For example, even in Britain during the early post-war period when national schools or tendencies were most pronounced, two highly successful German restorers represented polar opposites in picture restoration’s “ideological” wars. While Helmut Ruhemann lead the controversial school of “Total Cleaning” from within the National Gallery, Johannes Hell championed the philosophy of gradualist and minimalist restorations in which an overall appraisal of the aesthetic consequences of cleaning was maintained at all times. Hell, whose work was admired by members of the Royal Academy, including its painter-president, Gerald Kelly, did so from a successful career within the private sector but his disciples were to gain influential positions in the US museum world. Today, the linkage of competing restoration philosophies to national practices has lost almost all force. All museums – like the Louvre, like the Getty – now sport increasingly powerful science departments and engage nationally and internationally in the kind of professional collaborations between restorers, scientists and curators that operate under the new umbrella discipline know as Technical Art History – and there is scarcely a Technical Art Historian today who would subscribe to a “Total Cleaning” philosophy. Virtually to a person, restorers nowadays declare themselves to be minimalists.
4. Originally published under the title “Rhétorique de l’attribution (Reductio ad absurdum)” in Revue de l’Art, 42, October 1978. Republished as “The rhetoric of attribution – a cautionary tale” in Reflections on the history of art, 1987. (We are indebted to Charles Hope for locating the sources of this vividly recalled but utterly misplaced text.)
5. Charles Hope wrote to Helen Glanville: “The Fichard passage, for example, was not mentioned by them, but by Mancinelli, and I had to consult to Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft for 1891 to discover the full context; and it was Conti who drew attention to Michelangelo’s purchase of lake in 1508…” In the third James Beck Memorial Lecture, in London, June 2011, Hope discussed the Sistine Chapel ceiling restoration in the context of the National Gallery’s post-war restoration policies. He warned how misunderstandings of key art historical terms such as sfumato and colorito had carried grave and irreversible consequences for much art “as it did in the case of the Sistine ceiling”. Hope’s lecture has been published in full in the ArtWatch UK members’ Journal No. 28. (For membership subscription details, contact Helen Hulson, Membership and Events Secretary, ArtWatch UK, at: email@example.com)
6. …or, even sooner still, had he read Alexander Eliot’s essay “The Sistine Cleanup: Agony or Ecstasy” in the March 1987 Harvard Magazine. In an interview with Einav Zamir on the Artwatch International website (“Evidence of the Eyes”), Eliot recalls: “Frank Mason said ‘We’ve got to protest and stop the cleaning’ to which I responded ‘You can’t buck city hall, let alone the Vatican.’ Then Frank said, ‘Yes, but think of how awful you’ll feel if you don’t try,’ and so he recruited me. I then wrote a piece for Harvard Magazine on the subject, which Jim Beck told me helped persuade him to join us. At that point, the Vatican became noticeably upset.”
For more of Eliot and Mason’s views on the Sistine Chapel ceiling restoration, see A Light in the Dark: The Art & Life of Frank Mason and “Divine Light”.
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The Sistine Chapel Restorations, Part II – CODA: The Remarkable Responses to Our Evidence of Injuries; and Thomas Hoving’s Rant of Denial
Before considering the third and concluding part of our examination of the Sistine Chapel ceiling restoration, it might be helpful to note the responses made to the first two posts (“Setting the Scene, Packing Them In” and “How to Take a Michelangelo Sibyl Apart, from Top to Toes”). Without exception, these have comprised outright expressions of support and/or of indignation and distress at the fate of the frescoes. Such phases as “I had no idea”, “I was horrified to see” and “that things were so bad” abound. Serious and intelligent websites have reported our accounts in similar terms. As is discussed below, no one has challenged our evidence of injuries and everyone who has responded has been shocked and alarmed by it.
Bob Duggan on the Big Think site expressed this concern with precision: “When I learned that my very breath and perspiration could contribute to the slow destruction of the frescoes, I felt sad. However, when I read Art Watch UK’s accusation that the Vatican undertook a 20-year restoration project of the frescoes ‘in full knowledge that the stripped-down bare fresco surfaces would thereafter be attacked by atmospheric pollution unless given some other protective covering’ (which has not yet happened), I felt rage over the local mismanagement of a global cultural treasure…” Duggan added that he was “reminded of a similar, more recent restoration fiasco involving Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic. Years after the artist’s death, overzealous conservators stripped away darkening varnishes applied by Eakins to reveal the brighter colors beneath that were more in line with the Impressionism then en vogue.”
Ikono, an organisation dedicated to democratizing art through the production and broadcasting of short films that present art to the wider public sphere, reported that “ ‘The Vatican authorities are in conservation crisis today because they stripped the Sistine Chapel frescoes bare in the 1980s and 1990s. They did so against material and historical evidence that Michelangelo had finished off his frescoes with additional glue or size-based a secco painting,’ writes Artwatch in an excellent two-part article on the Sistine Chapel Restorations…”
Our case was re-presented in the pithiest form imaginable on the Left Bank Blog: “OY! According to ArtWatchUK: ‘The Vatican authorities are in conservation crisis today because they stripped the Sistine Chapel frescoes bare in the 1980s and 1990s. They did so against material and historical evidence that Michelangelo had finished off his frescoes with additional glue or size-based a secco painting. That original, autograph material was removed in full knowledge that the stripped-down bare fresco surfaces would thereafter be attacked by atmospheric pollution unless given some other protective covering. An attempt to coat the frescoes with synthetic resin (Paraloid B72) was abandoned leaving some surfaces clogged and the rest unprotected. The authorities then promised to install hi-tech paraphernalia that would somehow prevent the polluting atmosphere from making contact with the Chapel’s painted walls and ceiling. As was shown in our previous post, that cockamamie promise was not delivered. Today, in a chapel increasingly over-crowded with paying visitors, these stripped-down frescoes stand in greater peril than ever.’”
A number of questions arise. If the import of the evidence we have assembled over the past 23 years is so clear to so many, why does it have so little traction with the authorities who sanctioned the affronting restorations? Does the absence of any challenge to our evidence mean that everyone is now (privately if not openly) persuaded that – quite aside from the present and ongoing environmental assaults within the chapel – Michelangelo’s painting has indeed been gravely and irreversibly injured artistically, in terms both of its individual component parts and its general orchestration of effects? Or does it show that the authorities, in pursuit of their own interests, are now impervious to and politically insulated against any criticism?
When we first began making this case over two decades ago in the dark pre-digital era, the ink was scarcely ever dry on our criticisms before someone or other claimed that our comparative photographs were misleading; that old painted, drawn, or engraved copies of the ceiling were not to be trusted and had no force as testimony; that we were technically ignorant, or victims of “culture shock”, or agents of mischief – or worse. Could it really be, as it still sometimes seems, that no matter how grave and persuasive the evidence of injuries might be, there exists a wider disabling public resignation and conviction that nothing might today impede the lavishly funded, sponsorship-attracting, Conservation Juggernaut?
To be institutionally specific and somewhat blunt: could it be that the Vatican authorities today think it better to continue sheltering behind a fantastical fairy story of the transforming powers of Wicked Soot and Imperceptibly Darkening Varnishes, than to concede a professional misjudgement made by a small group of in-house experts over a third of a century ago?
Our colleague in France, the painter and the President of ARIPA (The Association Internationale pour le Respect de l’Intégrité du Patrimoine Artistique), Michel Favre-Felix, adds weight and urgency to these considerations with a two-fold reaction. In the first instance, he too was startled by our further evidence of “this incredible statement by the chemist: ‘Ammonium carbonate alone tends to tone down colours…sodium carbonate livens them up’”, and the little-noticed admission of the ferocity of the cleaning agent AB 57 by the chief restorer and co-director of the restoration, Gianluigi Colalucci: “Here’s a tiny patch where I left it on too long. In this little experimental patch you see completely solid violet paint, but around it you can see the gradations of dark and light, which are the shadings of Michelangelo’s own work”. As Favre-Felix notes, whenever a given chemical is known to have even the slightest effect on the original colours, it is rightly forbidden to use it.
His second and generous reaction was to offer further visual corroborations in the form of evidence produced for ARIPA’s journal Nuances of other damages made on the monumental figures of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The injuries to one of these, the Cumaean Sibyl, are of great strategic significance in our joint battles. That is, we have just shown in our two previous posts the gross damages inflicted on two of the greatest figures that came at the end of Michelangelo’s cycle when he was at the height of his conceptual, painterly and figurally inventive powers – his Libyan Sibyl and his Prophet Daniel (see Figs. 2 and 3). To that catalogue of injuries, the further evidence of this third case must surely now establish an indisputable and irresistible critical mass? Of the ceiling’s twelve alternating Prophets and Sibyls that constituted Michelangelo’s most heroic monumental and spiritually expressive achievement, we can now demonstrate how three in a row of these painted colossi suffered grievously. Statistically, a sample of a quarter might be considered sufficient to make a general case? We could, God willing, pursue the evidence further if necessary, but is it not now time sufficient for the Vatican to confront and address past heritage preservation errors and desist from what would otherwise constitute an effective falsification of scholarship and art history?
The Portuguese online newspaper Publico reported our criticisms of the Sistine Chapel’s restorations on the second of March. Professor Charles Hope, a former director of the Warburg Institute, was quoted in further criticism of the restoration. The present director of the Vatican Museums, Antonio Paolucci, conceded a pressing need for ameliorative environmental measures which he said would shortly be announced. Unfortunately, he nonetheless and bullishly defended the restoration itself as one which will last for centuries – even before any measures have been announced. (We understand that since those comments were made, the promised announcement has retreated from this April to “the end of the year”.)
If we might at least now be sure that the Vatican is aware of our criticisms and evidence, we recognise that for its part, the Vatican will also appreciate the potential material and political risks of abandoning defences of the restoration. Visitors to the chapel greatly swell attendances to the Vatican Museums. In 1976, about 1.3 million people visited the museums. By 2007 the number had reached nearly 4.3 million, netting some $65 million and providing the Vatican City with its most significant source of income. An admission of error would also embarrass the many major players within the international art world who proclaimed a Revolutionary Restoration in the 1980s. To what degree of embarrassment might be sensed in an ill-tempered and defensive outburst by (the late) Thomas Hoving, a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in a filmed interview for a portrait of the late painter Frank Mason, an early critic of the restoration and a founding member of ArtWatch International.
Thomas Hoving and selected dialogue from an interview in the film A Light In The Dark:
00:53:02 – Thomas Hoving:
“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about (Frank Mason). There’s a guy at Columbia, some professor who’s been screeching about this for years. (pause) Turns out that he just doesn’t know what he’s talking about. (pause) Do you think Michelangelo was honestly going to deliver it to the Pope something that looked dirty?! (laughs) His marble was going to look gray, his marble was going to look blackened out?! You think that he really mixed his fresco to look like that?!”
01:07:01 – Alexander Eliot:
“I wouldn’t say that the Sistine ceiling had been destroyed myself. I wouldn’t use that word. I would say that it had been desecrated.”
01:07:24 – Thomas Hoving:
“I was part of the desecration personally, if this idiot is right. I am part of it so he ought to put my name on it. (pause) I was invited by the man who cleaned it, Paolucci – whoever, (pause) [Gianluigi Colalucci was the chief restorer and co-director of the restorations, which ran from 1980 to 1994. Antonio Paolucci became the Director of The Vatican Museums in December 2007. – Ed.] to come up in the rickety elevator (makes sound effect of elevator) all the way to the top, and he gave me a beautiful fresh sponge, dipped it in the solution and (he) said OK clean. And they were finally doing the Separation of Earth, (uh) Separation of Light and Darkness, the last one. They started with the Flood and worked backwards. I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Ya, try it.’ I went (reaches up) ‘shooo!’ (wiping motion) And this thin film of black just disappeared.
“It was just built up soot over hundreds of years from the stoves that they used to drag in there when the Cardinals all had to meet. That’s what they all did. They had little cubby holes, their servants had cubby holes, they had tents, they had bunks, full service catering, and stoves.
“And fresco is impervious to anything other than being blasted by (uh) laser beams you know (does sound effect) out of Star Wars. Not only did they not desecrate or ruin it, they didn’t do anything to it that wasn’t there. So the guy is full of shit (!) if he said that they damaged the Sistine ceiling in any way, they didn’t! I know it. I was there. I cleaned about eight inches of the Sistine ceiling – personally!”
01:10:11 – Thomas Hoving:
“It’s not a controversy, the guy is full of it (Alex Eliot) He’s never been there, he’s never seen it. Did he clean a part of it?”
Interviewer Sonny Quinn: – “He made a film…”
Thomas Hoving: “Big deal.”
SQ: “He was close enough so he…”
TH: “Close enough? It’s about 55 feet, give me a break!”
SQ: “…they built scaffolding for him and he was there for six weeks…”
TH: “During the cleaning?”
SQ: “No, before the cleaning…”
TH: “Ya, so?”
SQ: “Well, he wanted everybody to examine his film and…”
TH: “Ah the guy is just full of it…”
For the record (once again), in 1967 the art critic and writer Alexander Eliot and his wife Jane Winslow Eliot spent over 500 hours making a close-up documentary film of the ceiling, The Secret of Michelangelo, Every Man’s Dream. Eliot was up there on the scaffold, every bit as close to the ceiling as Hoving was to be – and for much longer. On 20 May 1985 Eliot had pleaded with the Vatican’s Secretary of State for him to view the Vatican’s own copy of the Eliots’ film and to “have it stopped at the images of the Ancestors [on the lunettes]. Compare what it proves was there against what’s left today”. That precious record of the unrestored ceiling awaits a re-showing. One can only wonder why the Vatican never pressed the testimony of that filmed footage of the pre-restoration ceiling in support of the later cleaning.
For footage of the cleaning itself in progress, see the Ikono site mentioned above which links to three short films. The narrations of all are unspeakably hagiographic and tendentious: critics of the restoration are said to have been “divided”, while the restorers displayed a “passion for their task that recalls that of Michelangelo himself”. The restoration’s outcome is said to “speak for itself” and to have answered “all but the most severe critic”. Most brazenly of all, an outing for that old canard: this restoration had provided “rich opportunities for study”.
We should perhaps resign ourselves to the possibilty that the Eliots’ film may never be aired again – but it will never be possible to expunge all the photographs of the unrestored frescoes that permit the kind of directly comparative visual analysis routinely conducted on this site. Such comparisons truly do “speak for themselves” because they permit like fairly to compare itself with like. For those with eyes to see, such photo-comparisons will forever tell the same heart-breaking story: a misconceived, technically aggressive restoration inflicted grievous injuries on Michelangelo’s art.
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The Sistine Chapel Restorations, Part II:
How to Take a Michelangelo Sibyl Apart, from Top to Toes
“I must confess I harbour a lingering almost subconscious fear that someday someone will come, unexpectedly, with a really intelligent observation that will show all of us to have been blind.” ~ Gianluigi Colalucci, 1990
We were startled when the Vatican authorities admitted that Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes are in greater peril than at any point in their history. Powerful art institutions rarely broadcast their own embarrassments. More often, they see off their critics by sitting tight, quietly briefing journalistic proxies and…continuing to be. Welcome as was the acknowledgement of the problem by Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, casting the Chapel’s paying visitors as the principal cause of the present crisis, masked greater institutional responsibilities.
The Vatican has yet to acknowledge that this environmental crisis arose as a direct consequence – and within just two decades – of permitting the Chapel’s ancient frescoes to be used as a test bed for the then new and highly controversial cleaning agent “Mixture AB 57″. And, despite the brouhaha over toxic visitors, there remains no hint of acknowledgement that the restorations of the 1980s and early 1990s proceeded on an art critical misreading which, in addition to stripping the fresco surfaces bare and leaving a chemical time-bomb within the Chapel, inflicted grave and irreversible artistic injuries on Michelangelo’s paintings – see right.
On the cleaning method’s toxic conservation legacy, we had precisely warned in 1993 that: “even if the Vatican team were to concede that the brilliance of Michelangelo’s new colours is a chemical deceit purchased at the cost of a physical and chemical weakening of the frescoes, the dispute would not be laid to rest. The need to avoid further deterioration would still be there.” (James Beck and Michael Daley, “Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business and the Scandal”, Chapters III and IV.) In similar vein we can now say that today’s promises of dramatic technical “improvements” are simply recycled 1980s assurances that, at best, remain of a palliative nature. Even when promised the first time around, the Vatican authorities had admitted to us (see below) that the measures could not fully solve the then already pressing environmental problems unleashed by the restoration’s experimental method.
The Experimental New Picture Cleaning Method
AB 57 was developed by Professor Paulo Mora and his wife Laura Mora, chief conservators at Rome’s Istituto Centrale del Restauro, for cleaning stone buildings. It comprised: “a mixed gelatinous solvent, consisting of a solution of ammonium bicarbonate, sodium bicarbonate, Desogen (a surf-actant and anti-fungal agent), carboxymethylcellulose (a thixotropic agent), dissolved in distilled water.” Toti Scialoja, a painter and a former professor at Rome’s Academy of Fine Arts, complained that its ingredients were “too powerful – ammonia and soda, the stuff you use to clean your bathtub”. Professor Christoph Frommel, director of the Bibliotheca Hertziana in Rome, described it as “a sharp and aggressive chemical”.
The Moras presented AB 57 as a means of removing insoluble salts and incrusted materials from wall paintings: “If the original surface of the painting is unaffected by water then this mixture will have no deleterious action on it”. Michelangelo’s frescoes did not suffer greatly from incrusted and insoluble salts but they were extensively covered with water sensitive glue/size painting which artists, conservation experts and scholars held to comprise Michelangelo’s own final painted adjustments. An early sign of the wrongness of the new cleaning method came when the restorers abandoned customary claims of a miraculous “recovery” of original and authentic conditions. The use of AB 57 had produced such a mismatch between the cleaned frescoes and the early copies that had been made of them, that the hype had to be bolder and of a different order. As seen in our previous post, the decision to clean with AB 57 had been taken quickly and in express excitement at the prospect of overturning art history itself. This dramatic technology-led change of conservation philosophy was reported in a 1983 Newsweek account: “As recently as 1976 while cleaning paintings by the other artists on the side walls of the Chapel, workers deliberately kept the colours muted so that Michelangelo’s wouldn’t look too faded by comparison. ‘Even then it entered nobody’s head to start on Michelangelo’, says master restorer Gianluigi Colalucci. But when a new cleaning solvent was developed, Colalucci tested it…”
Selling the Surprising AB 57-induced Changes to Michelangelo’s Painting
Having used it, the resulting rupture between the old Michelangelo and his restored self was trumpeted by Fabrizio Mancinelli, the Vatican Museums’ curator and co-director, with Gianluigi Colalucci, of the restoration. Mancinelli claimed in 1986 that the restoration “had brought to light (and will continue to bring to light) a totally new artist, a colourist quite different in character from the unnaturally sombre character who has in the past fascinated generations of historians, connoisseurs and fellow artists…The cleaning of the frescoes has led to the surprising conclusion that the kind of suggestive painting by shadows for which Michelangelo was admired until a few years ago was essentially the product of candle smoke and still more of glue varnishes applied possibly even before the 18th century.” (“The Sistine Chapel ~ Michelangelo Rediscovered”, p. 218.)
Even though no evidence was ever produced of extensive glue applications having been made by restorers, in the early years, art historians and credulous art critics queued to repudiate what one scholar dubbed the “Darkness Fallacy” and the “Sculptural Fallacy” of traditional Michelangelo studies. The proclaimed “New Michelangelo”, however, was an entirely modern chemically engineered artefact, not a scholarly construct. In fact, it flew in the face of the historical record: Michelangelo had been celebrated at his own funeral not for any colouristic brilliance – let alone for, as one critic recently held, the “sharp and acid palette used by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel” – but for his “fleeting, sombre colours”. The new art historical dispensation rested on a twentieth century purging of aged, sometimes distressed but nonetheless authentic material. Indeed, it was precisely because this was not a historically-informed recovery of an original state that drums had had to be rolled for “The New Michelangelo”.
It was claimed that this revisionist reading of historical and material evidence had been corroborated “scientifically”. But this was a New Science to sanction a New Michelangelo. Scientific examinations of the frescoes in the 1930s by X-ray and ultra-violet imaging techniques had led to altogether contrary conclusions. It was reported in 1938 that Michelangelo’s “overpaintings were lying quite brightly a secco on the fresco layer itself; these overpaintings proved themselves undoubtedly the painting of the Master himself.” (See “Art Restoration”, Chapter III.) It was further claimed that Colalucci and his colleagues had recovered the original fresco surfaces so deftly that they had preserved its “original” patina and even left a thin layer of dirt above them that would protect the new surface from airborne pollution. Well, we all now know from the present panic in the Vatican that that assurance was not worth a used solvent swab and that a couple of years ago “unimaginable amounts” of dirt were scrubbed off the frescoes by conservators working at night so as not to impede the daytime tourism stream.
The Over-Selling of Conservation Science
Conservation science has its uses but it can never analyse or appraise works of art because Art’s essential properties are aesthetic not material; perceptual not mechanical. Insofar as there might be a science of art, it is to be found in art itself and within artists’ own practices. This is because art consists not so much of materials as of values and the relationships between values that artists’ create and orchestrate, albeit, with materials. These values are aesthetically relative, not intrinsic to materials, and they are continuously appraised and adjusted by artists as they work. Self-criticism, self-analysis and continuous aesthetic appraisal are integral to the making of art. With art, critical and analytical faculties can never be replaced by apparatuses or be donned by technicians. Conservation science might sometimes tell us of what something is made but never by whom it was made.
The Mis-Appliance of Conservation Science
In terms of professional art restoration, conservation science can serve a useful diversionary purpose. The restoration-authorising authorities and art lovers alike can be invited to put aside critical responses on an implicit assurance that some inscrutable but infallible force has guaranteed the probity of whichever of the many conflicting restoration methodologies is being used at that moment. We ArtWatchers are not inclined to be so trusting nor so easily led. In the case of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, having examined evidence of the cleaning method and its consequences for two and a half decades, and being now armed with the officially published accounts, we are confident that not only can it be shown that Michelangelo’s tonal/plastic systems were recently injured, but that even his very designs, his drawing, his vaunted disegno were repeatedly violated and corrupted.
A Catastrophic Loss of Art Citical Nerve
These losses and violations were not so much unfortunate by-products of an inappropriately aggressive cleaning agent as the consequence of prior and catastrophic failures of art critical judgement and powers of aesthetic analysis. This failure was evident not only within the Vatican’s curatorial, scientific and conservation staffs, but throughout much of the wider international art historical establishment. By effectively agreeing to “de-attribute” what were – and had always been recognised to be – the last stages of Michelangelo’s own work, an overly deferential art historical establishment sanctioned their destruction. For all this (initial) pan-national consensus, the judgement was historically rogue. In 1986, when defending his own restoration, the chief restorer, Gianluigi Colalucci admitted that his professional predecessors’ judgements had been contrary to his own and “not encouraging” to the restoration. That was an understatement: restorers who had worked on the previous restoration (1935-36) had officially and flatly reported that Michelangelo had “finished off a secco”, that is, that he had painted on top of his frescoes when they had dried.
The Testimony of Charles Heath Wilson
Restorers who had worked on the restoration of 1904 had abandoned attempts to clean the frescoes for fear of damaging Michelangelo’s vulnerable work on the surface. Colalucci, greatly in thrall to contemporary “scientific” analysis, dismissed such official reports as “subjective impressions”. He also ignored the testimony of the British painter and fresco expert Charles Heath Wilson who had reported his own close-hand examination of the ceiling in an 1876 book “Life and Works of Michelangelo Buonarotti”. Wilson had found the frescoes “extensively retouched with size colour…evidently by the hand of Michelangelo”. He found that this secco painting “readily melted on being touched with a wet finger and consisted of a finely ground black, mixed with a size probably made according to the usage of the time from parchment shavings.” He further noted, “The shadows of the draperies have been boldly and solidly retouched with this size colour, as well as the shadows on the backgrounds…The hair of the heads and the beards of many of the figures are finished in size colour …These retouchings…constituted the finishing process or as Condivi [Michelangelo’s preferred biographer] expresses it, alluding to it in the history of these frescoes, ‘l’ultima mano’.”
For Wilson, there could “be no doubt that nearly all of this work is contemporary, and in only one part was there evidence of a later and incompetent hand.” Aside from its artistic force, certainty about the secco painting’s antiquity lay in an elegant technical proof: “The size colour has cracked as the plaster has cracked”. It is a matter of record that the ceiling cracked before any restorers touched it. If, as has been claimed, later restorers had repeatedly applied glues, those glues would inevitably have been brushed into the pre-existing cracks. Wilson, who tested the depth of the cracks with a penknife, saw that none had been. Artists like Wilson appreciate that it is impossible to paint over a cracked surface without working the material into the cracks. Wilson was left in no doubt: having been applied when the ceiling was new and not-yet-cracked, these surface glue paints could only have been Michelangelo’s own work, his finishing stages, his l’ultima mano. Normally, restorers recognise that when varnishes or paints can be shown to have run into age-cracked materials this can be taken as a proof of their more recent origins. On this occasion, the restorers failed to recognise the implications of the converse.
The Vulnerability of Michelangelo’s Glue Painting
Moreover, this original secco work, Wilson appreciated, was water-sensitive, having been damaged when “washed by labouring men with water in which a caustic has been mixed”. As to when the alleged restorers’ glue-varnishes might plausibly have been applied, no evidence was forthcoming. In 1996 Colalucci said that although “countless attempts at cleaning and restoration seem to have been made”, only “four are actually accounted for”. The four are of 1566, 1824-25, 1904 and 1935-36. As we showed in our post of 1 April 2011, that first restoration itself provided the clearest possible evidence of Michelangelo having painted shadows a secco. That evidence, taken together with the copies of the ceiling discussed opposite should have been an end to the matter. The last two restorations cited by Colalucci coincide with photographic records and these, too, offer no support for the claimed superimpositions of secco painting and glue-varnishes by restorers.
Perplexed by the Vatican’s unwavering but evidently unsupported insistence that the ceiling had repeatedly been coated with glue “varnishes”, I asked in May 1990: “Does any documentary evidence exist to support the claim that hot animal glue was repeatedly applied to the frescoes over the centuries in order to revive the colours?” Colalucci replied that there was none. In 1986 he had reported a note in a manuscript which described how the ceiling had once been cleaned with linen rags and bread “scrubbing hard, and sometimes when the dirt was more tenacious, the bread was moistened a little” but added “That is as much as it says. The note does not mention at all the use of substances to revive colours or of glue varnish.” (See “Art Restoration”, pp. 74-78.) If, as Wilson discovered, the secco painting dissolved at the touch of a wet finger, an earlier hard scrubbing with wet rags or bread would certainly have been sufficient to cause the injuries that Wilson and others had reported to parts of the ceiling.
A Filmed Corroboration of Wilson’s Testimony
Wilson’s appraisal was echoed from another scaffold a century later. In 1967 the art critic and writer Alexander Eliot and his wife Jane Winslow Eliot spent over 500 hours making a close-up documentary film of the ceiling, “The Secret of Michelangelo, Every Man’s Dream”. Alexander Eliot reported in the April 1987 Harvard Review how “with the exception of the previously restored Prophet Zachariah, almost everything we saw on the barrel vault clearly came from Michelangelo’s own inspired hand. There are passages of the finest, most delicately incisive draughtsmanship imaginable. Michelangelo’s loving depiction of fingernails, eyelids and tiny wrinkles stand in contrast to tremendous swirls of colour…” On 20 May 1985 Eliot had pleaded with the Vatican’s Secretary of State for him to view the Vatican’s own copy of the Eliots’ film and to “have it stopped at the images of the Ancestors [on the lunettes]. Compare what it proves was there against what’s left today”. That precious, now historical, record still awaits a re-showing.
Venanzo Crocetti’s Protests Against the Restoration – as a Sculptor and as a Former Restorer in the Sistine Chapel
In 1989 the sculptor Venanzo Crocetti, who had spent “four full years” working during the 1930s as an apprentice restorer on the scaffold, published three photo-comparisons of the cleaned lunettes in an article in the December Oggi e Domani (“Salviamo Almeno il Giudizio Universale”) – see Fig. 28. Crocetti’s account was detailed and technically informed. He began by explaining how he had appealed unavailingly in 1983 to the director general of the Vatican Museums, Prof. Carlo Pietrangeli, to desist from incurring the “rapid biological degradation caused by the cleaning power” of AB 57. Crocetti flatly dismissed claims that the glues had been applied by restorers. He also testified that as early as 1983 applications of AB 57 had been standardised at 3 minutes each, regardless of local conditions (see below). He complained of the folly of cleaning aggressively in small patches, zones that had originally been made with very broad applications. These glue-paint applications, he noted, had been made chiefly in the shaded parts of the figures and to such artistically selective purpose that Michelangelo’s authorship was beyond question. As a (formerly) supreme case in point, see Fig. 1.
The Effects of the Double Applications of AB 57
Crocetti’s testimony on the AB 57 cleaning method then being used on Michelangelo was particularly damning. He noted that while the first 3 minutes long application left the frescoes looking cleaner, the second on the following day, left them with altered and considerably degraded colours. He believed that the first applications effectively “degreased” the surfaces leaving them open to greater penetration by the second applications. He was convinced that the immediately apparent visual effects of these twin applications would not be their final outcome. He argued that their corrosive actions would continue because of the absorption of the solvents to a depth of half a centimetre. Some days after the second applications he noticed (from the scaffold itself) the appearance of “whitish oxidations of variable intensity” over large zones.
He considered the restorers’ claimed discovery of “stratifications of dirt gathered on the frescoes over the centuries” exaggerated and misleading, and he held that the early photographs of the lunettes by Anderson made the extent of this exaggeration clear – see Fig. 28. He believed that the ferocity of AB 57 made any finely tuned cleaning gradated to meet local conditions impossible. He believed that the greatest injury was to the chief feature of the frescoes – their disposition of lights and shades, and not their local colours. He believed that the restorers, in their pursuit of more intense colours, had penetrated the frescoes to their brighter, less modulated preparative layers. He felt confident that he had seen at first-hand how, with “cleaning”, the figures in the lunettes had been remade, becoming “false in form and colour” alike. He saw that many of the shadows from which the figures had formerly emerged had simply disappeared. He saw that corrections which Michelangelo had, with mastery, made invisible, had been exposed (in particular, see Figs. 11-16). Above all, he confirmed that the condition of the frescoes remained “excellent”, and that this was in part due to the absorption over the centuries of greasy substances of chapel smoke which had “strengthened the colour. Leaving upon it a glittering shift of the lightest varnish [thereby counterbalancing] the aridity and fragility” of old fresco. Having worked on the restoration in the 1930s, he found himself near to despair.
The Invasive Ferocity and Likely Legacy of AB 57
The AB 57 water-based paste used to remove Michelangelo’s size painting contained two “caustics”: sodium bicarbonate and ammonium bicarbonate. Professor Frommel had questioned the method of application: “Who knows if they succeed in cleaning this completely away? No one can prove whether or not it will affect the frescoes in the future. No one can say definitely if they get all of it off.” Consider Colalucci’s own account of the method of application:
“The times of application, rigorously measured, were:
First application: 3 minutes, followed by removal, washing with water. Left to dry for 24 hours. Second application: 3 minutes, followed by removal, washing and leaving to dry as before. If necessary, and locally only, small applications, followed by plentiful final washing.
In the case of salt efflorescences consisting of calcium carbonate, there was added to the solvent mixture a saturated solution of dimethylformamide…”
Chemically Adjusting Michelangelo’s Colours
AB 57, a calcium dissolving solvent, was thus used to remove organic materials with an oven-cleaner like ferocity and speed even though many experts held those very materials to comprise authentic Michelangelo work. Contrary to assurances otherwise, the aesthetic consequences of this stripping extended, as Crocetti had observed at first hand, into the very fabric of the exposed fresco surfaces. This was a serious matter. The Vatican’s research chemist, Nazzareno Gabrielli had explained that AB 57 contained two separate salts because while “Ammonium Carbonate alone tends to tone down colours…sodium carbonate livens them up”. The Moras’ combination, he judged, had “the proper chromatic effect”. So far as we know, it was never explained by what means the “proper” combination for Michelangelo might have been established.
Juggling with dangerous chemicals and processes constitutes professional chic in some restoration quarters. Restorers often claim that a dangerous chemical in “safe hands” is better than a mild one in “untrained hands”. When restorers speak among themselves, the professional conceits are more evident. The IIC Bulletin carried an obituary on Paolo Mora who died on 27 March 1998. He had studied under Mauro Pelliccioli, who restored Leonardo’s Last Supper, and, reportedly, was fond of claiming that he could clean a picture with a broom and drugstore chemicals. When he found himself too busy to clean a large Bellini altarpiece, Pelliccioli enlisted two students and showed them how to dissolve rods of caustic soda in water. He demonstrated his cleaning technique by sweeping a swab of soda over the picture with one hand followed immediately by a “neutralising” swipe with a turpentine swab with the other. Thus enlightened, the students were said to have “cleaned the large painting in a single day”.
The AB 57 Rinse-Water Menace
Aside from exposing the stripped fresco surfaces to the Chapel’s notoriously polluted atmosphere, yet other risks were taken in pursuit of brighter colours. Removing the water-based solvent gel with copious amounts of washing risked, as Frommel feared and Crocetti had observed, depositing corrosive ingredients within the frescoes. The “highly soluble” ingredients were said to have been selected because “they are easy to wash off”. It was certainly desirable that they should be so: carboxymethyl cellulose is known to encourage sodium retention; ‘Desogen’, being a detergent as well as fungicide, is non-volatile and does not evaporate. The Moras had conceded that these ingredients have “the disadvantage of remaining in the painting unless removed after treatment by rinsing with water”.
There are problems with washing, however. First, the rinse water was absorbed deeply into the porous fresco and with it, inevitably, particles of soluble and corrosive ingredients. Twenty four hours were needed for the water to evaporate before a second application of AB 57 could be applied. Second, tap water may contain solutions of sodium, iron, copper, and chloride, and unless it is packed with sufficient calcium bicarbonate, will itself attack the calcium carbonate of fresco. Even distilled water (which is free of impurities) slowly dissolves calcium carbonate and attacks the frescoes’ structure. When challenged in 1991 on having introduced dangerous materials into the frescoes, Colalucci replied: “AB 57…has been greatly tested and is very old. The actual solvent is held within a gel which does not allow the particles of the actual solvent to penetrate the plaster and the colour. However, the gel is removed and only a minimal (if any) percentage might remain which has no influence on the colours.” In 1986 Colalucci disclosed that, at that date “The work was concluded with abundant rinsing, repeated at intervals of up to several months” and that only “The last rinsing was done with distilled water”. Much copious washing was thus carried out with tap water.
Mirella Simonetti on Dangerous Deposits and their Air-Borne Allies
Far from having “no influence”, experts expressly feared that residues deposited within the frescoes by rinsing would react with airborne pollutants and moisture. The restorer Mirella Simonetti held one of AB57’s ingredients, bicarbonate of soda, to be an “extremely damaging” residue because, when combined with the sulphates of calcium and air-borne sulphuric anhydrites, it produces sodium sulphate – a whitish dust which corrodes the fresco and destroys its coloured surface. Simonetti also maintained that the use of EDTA (ethylene diamine tetra acetic acid) within the solvent gel had chemically altered the fresco by causing a “breakdown in the molecular structure [and] bringing about a disintegration [which] in turn causes the division of the components and the discohesion of the lime.” Once weakened in this fashion, the disintegration would continue – and “even water can favour such a process”. Simonetti’s alarm was later vindicated when, tests showed that the compound’s corrosive properties etched the surface of marble into irregular corrugations, scattering light and imparting a deceiving effect of brightness that provided more routes of ingress to airborne pollutants.
Fresco Painting and Its Known Enemies
It had long been recognised that air-borne sulphur attacks fresco. In 1884 the reverend J. A. Rivington explained in a paper delivered at the Society of Arts in London how air contaminated by coal and gas emissions destroys fresco: “The carbonate of lime is converted into the sulphate, breaking up the paint and becoming itself disintegrated in the process of change.” The notoriously contaminated air surrounding and invading the Sistine chapel contains sulphur dioxide from coal-burning, nitrous oxides from car exhausts and hydrogen chloride from incinerated plastics. When combined with rain or condensed water these substances produce sulphuric, nitric and hydrochloric acids respectively, all fiercely corrosive. Water is brought into the Chapel by tourists in the form of perspiration and breathing vapour while breathing itself gives off carbon dioxide.
On 12 December 2012, Corriere della Sera reported: “‘Dust, temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide are the great enemies of paintings’, Museum Director Antonio Paolucci told reporters in the Vatican, ‘so this threat is something we have to address. The five million tourists who visit the Sistine Chapel each year bring massive amounts of grime and humidity with them, and it is seriously damaging Michelangelo’s frescoes. So starting in the middle of 2013, every tourist will be thoroughly vacuumed, dusted, cleaned, and chilled before admission to reduce the amount of environmental pollution they cause.
‘On entering the chapel, each tourist will be required to pass through a hi-tech vacuum system to remove dust, fibres, skin flakes, hair and other tiny particles, before they are allowed to view the frescoes. At the same time, a special carpet will also clean their shoes, while side vacuums will cool their temperature, to reduce the heat and humidity that emanates from their bodies. The dirt and heat generated by the 20,000 bodies each day has caused grime to accumulate on the paintings, and a thick layer of dirt had to be scrubbed off of the Last Judgment two years ago. This cannot be allowed to happen again.’”
What Goes Round, Comes Round
We have been there before. In “Art Restoration” in 1993 we wrote: “A recent report commissioned by the Vatican on the Chapel’s microclimate noted that the very large numbers of tourists produce the following adverse effects: they carry in from the streets polluted dust and organic particles on their clothing and hair; their combined body heat raises the temperature by as much as 5°C; and they greatly increase the relative humidity of the air. The moisture and carbon dioxide given off by tourists combines to produce carbonic acid which dissolves the calcium carbonate of the fresco. Water vapours convert sulphur particles into sulphuric acid which also dissolves fresco. The body heat creates convective air currents which carry polluted particles up to the walls and ceilings. Water vapour can activate the traces of salt and detergent left behind after the cleaning with AB57.”
In 1981 Colalucci had equated the glue/size paints with “extraneous chemical substances” without which “and with the science we have today” he hoped “the frescoes will remain in good condition for a very long time”. As mentioned, he offered an assurance that he had left “a very thin film of dirt touching the paint surface with its varying ‘patina’. This fine layer of dirt acts as a form of protection to the paint.” As also mentioned, we now know that whatever Colalucci might have left behind performed no such service, and that dirt on frescoes is no protection from further accumulations of corrosive dirt.
There have been many unfounded assurances. In 1987 Kathleen Weil Garris Brandt, Professor of Fine Arts, at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, and spokeswoman for the Vatican on the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, assured readers in Apollo that, “The substances used for the cleaning…have been used successfully for over twenty years… their chemical action is known and stops once the process is finished…the cleaning chemicals do not actually come into contact with the fresco surface”. Just months before in the Summer 1987 Art News, Summer 1987, the Moras themselves had claimed no more than that placing the solvents in a cellulose gel helped to “reduce penetration into the fresco”. In the summer 1987 Art News, the assurances were becoming more specific. M. Kirby Talley Jr., an independent consultant in fine art, interiors and art conservation, wrote:
“In order to prevent the condensation of moisture on the surface of the fresco, the Vatican has already embarked on an extensive programme to control the micro-climate of the Sistine Chapel. Professor Camuffo of the University of Padua spent a year making detailed measurements of relative humidity, temperature and air movement. A climate-control system based on his findings, which will prevent the movement of air above the windows as well as filter it, is now being developed by Carrier-Delchi. Electrical heating coils, ‘A sort of giant electrical blanket,’ as Persegati called it, will be placed under the roof above the ceiling, and will help to maintain a steady temperature during the winter. A dirt absorbing carpet has already been installed on the stairs down to the chapel and on part of the floor inside. Carrier-Delchi is considering a wind shower to remove dust particles from people’s clothing before they enter the chapel. Low heat lamps that can be adjusted to the amount of natural light entering through the windows will further reduce the temperature.”
Synthetic Resins – On or Off?
Talley Jr. reported that Colalucci had assured him that Michelangelo had used no secco paint on the lunettes, and that while the synthetic resin B 72 had been used to seal the walls of the lunettes it had not been used to that purpose on the ceiling. Even the official apologias for B 72 were more disturbing than reassuring: “Like all restoration materials it has its good and its bad points”, Talley said. Frommel was quoted as saying “According to the critics B 72 is something which may become opaque in the future. Are the critics right when they say we don’t know what it will do? They say tests should have been made and then a long period of time should have been allowed to elapse before proceeding. Paraloid can close the surface to respiration. It can close the pores, and if that were to happen it might change the interior life of the fresco.” To this Talley gave voice to B 72’s champions. According to the Moras “If you don’t use Paraloid, what do you use? Organic resins and inorganic fixatives such as lime water, ethysilicates and barium hydroxide all have serious drawbacks. Of the synthetic resins the acrylics are the best, and of the acrylics Paraloid is the least bad.” Was the least bad, good enough for Michelangelo – and better than his own secco painting which had for centuries protected the fresco surfaces from airborne pollutants?
On this question, the Vatican’s accounts prove unsatisfactory and shifting. All that can be said safely is that B 72 was abandoned and not replaced at some point between 1986 and 1991, at which latter date Colaucci claimed “There was no final application to protect or saturate the painting”. This change of mind was defended in 1991: “Our decision not to apply a protective material derived from the awareness that any new material which is not homogeneous with the original components of the fresco will undergo rapid degradation, causing, in the best of cases, aesthetic damage.” This being so, we must expect some parts of the frescoes to deteriorate more rapidly than others – but how many? In 1991 Colaucci put B 72 applications at “lunettes 50 per cent, ceiling 3 per cent”. In 1993 (“Art Restoration” p. 120) we had noted that while protection of the frescoes was to depend on the thin layer of original dirt that Colalucci claimed to have left in place and on the above described plans to stabilise and purify the chapel’s microclimate: “When Michael Daley asked if the air-conditioning system would eliminate the great fluctuations triggered by tourists, he [Mancinelli] replied ‘No. It will reduce the peaks and the troughs but will not eliminate the problem entirely.’” Of course, at that date, as today, the problems could have been halved by halving the numbers of tourists. Then, as perhaps still is the case, on days when the Chapel was closed to visitors, visitor numbers to the Vatican museums fell by 60 per cent.
The Breach of Methodological Good Practice that Menaced Michelangelo’s Shading
In the execution of the cleaning, certain procedural lapses compounded the risks and dangers. Early in the programme (in 1981 when working on the lunettes), Colalucci had said that AB 57: “was created mainly for marble but the Moras experimented with it on fresco. It is like paste. It can be on for a minute or ten minutes. The effect varies with the amount of time it spends in contact with a surface. The danger is that if you leave it on a minute or two too long it will go beyond the foreign substances and start removing the paint. You can see little areas where I’ve applied AB57 in two or three stages. Each time I take it off well before it’s too late. Then I look at it and gauge how much more time it will need…Here’s a tiny patch where I left it on too long. In this little experimental patch you see completely solid violet paint, but around it you can see the gradations of dark and light, which are the shadings of Michelangelo’s own work.”
Why, then, were the varying thicknesses of the (mis-designated) “foreign and extraneous substances” all given identical applications of two three minutes-long applications set twenty-four hours apart? Such an uniform treatment of so vast and varying a programme of painting seemed to breach conservation’s own ethics and “good practice”. As we had reported in “Art Restoration”:
“Within four years, Colalucci had abandoned this control of the solvent by constant observation and timing. In its place a standardized procedure was adopted, described in the 1986 ‘General Report on the Lunettes’: ‘First application, three minutes followed by removal and washing with water. Left to dry for 24 hours. Second application, three minutes followed by washing and leaving to dry as before’. These three-minute applications were said to have been ‘rigorously measured’. Colalucci explained the reason for the change of procedure: the size of the ceiling required that work be carried out by a team. Individual restorers, responding to the evidence of their own eyes, would draw different conclusions. Therefore, in order to obtain a ‘homogeneity of result’ – a ‘primary objective’ – they must be denied the opportunity to judge for themselves how long the solvent should remain in place. Solvent applications had to be predetermined, Colalucci felt, in order to avoid ‘either emotional involvement or complex mechanical manipulation on the part of the restorers’. When asked in 1985 at the Wethersfield Conference in New York why he did not adjust the timing to what his eyes were witnessing, he replied: ‘Because emotional or subjective conditions must not be permitted to intrude upon science.’ The scaffold, he added, did not permit stepping back to assess effects and the continuous bright lights of the Japanese film-makers ‘fatigued one’s eyes’. The activity of the film crews was itself a distraction as was also his having to entertain up to sixteen VIP visitors a day…” See Figs. 34 and 35.
Conservation Ethics and Showbiz Restorations
The inventors of AB57 held that cleaning should never be considered “entirely a technical matter…confined merely to the choice of solvent”. The restorer’s responsibility for the control of the solvent’s actions is absolute and should never be left to “depend on the natural uncontrolled action of the products” and must always depend on “the precise wish and aim of the restorer guided by his critical interpretation”. By failing to exercise control at all times, the restorer “deprives himself of the principal alarm signal when faced with new situations; he gives up looking ahead and allows the problem to resolve itself mechanically so that subsequently he can impose the result as an accomplished fact.”
By test-driving a new cleaning agent under television studio conditions in a constricted, over-crowded and art-politically febrile space, the Vatican restorers pioneered a new professional genre: conservation as both entertainment and professional swank. The combination of the Nippon Television Corporation sponsored showbiz and a provocatively radical restoration drew many protests. This spawned intensely propagandistic promotional razzmatazz, the unprecedented scale and character of which will be examined in Part III.
“The activity of restoration can be defined in terms of two overlapping headings, procedure and method. Procedure is fixed and invariable, and consists in the scientific planning and execution of the restoration project, regardless of the material involved. Method, however, is the department strictly of the action taken in the course of the restoration, and is therefore variable, subject to factors arising from the material, technique and state of conservation of the monument involved.
“The adoption of a procedure which governs the progress of the work is characteristic of modern restoration. Under the impetus of a marked development in technological expertise, modern restoration has extended its established and primary function of conservation for aesthetic ends to include a research capacity, directed towards the work of art considered as an inseparable duality, conceptual and material.
“In the past restoration practice aimed at cancelling out the effects of time and events upon the work of art, termed by Brandi comprehensively its historical aspect, absolute priority was given to its aesthetic aspect, conditioned of course by its contingent situation. The restoration of works of art was therefore entrusted to artists, who were free to introduce personal methods, often secret or private, consistent with the aim of returning the work to its pristine material state, but not necessarily to its original intended state.
“In the evolution of the ‘art’ of restoration, the laboratory for the Restoration of Pictures in the Vatican Museums has had a not insignificant role. Founded in 1992 by Biagio Biagetti according to the latest ideas, and subsequently provided with a Laboratory for Scientific Research, the institute is today directed by by Carlo Pietrangeli who in 1978 established its guidlines in Rules for the restoration of works of art.
“In June 1980 this laboratory, constitutionally responsible for the restoration of the pictorial patrimony of the Holy See, qualified and informed by its enormous experience, which goes back more than 50 years and has been constantly renewed both technically and in terms of personnel, undertook the most important task it had yet undertaken in its history, the restoration of the frescoes of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel…” ~ Gianluigi Colalucci, “Michelangelo’s Colours Rediscovered”, “The Sistine Chapel – Michelangelo Rediscovered”, London, 1986.
“The restoration of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel was a venture that shook the very foundations of the art world more than any other single event has managed to do in the last quarter of a century.
“Promoted and conducted with rigorously conservative objectives, over the course of its execution the restoration program assumed an ever-growing significance in historical and critical terms – an importance that was foretold when the first patches were cleaned and was fully confirmed by the restoration of the Eleazar-Mathan lunette.” ~ Gianluigi Colalucci, “Michelangelo The Vatican Frescoes”, by Pierluigi de Vecchi and Gianluigi Colalucci, 1996.
“…The intuition that the colours must have been quite different from those that could be seen can be found sporadically in the writings of the more perceptive scholars of Michelangelo, from [Charles Heath] Wilson to Biagetti and Wilde. But clear and conclusive evidence of the original colours was established for the first time in recent times by the extraordinary photographs of the Japanese photographer Takashi Okamura, taken just before the restoration and published in a book of 1980, unfortunately in a small limited edition and now not widely seen. The eye of the camera, in itself much more acute than the human eye, and aided by much stronger light than is usually available in the Chapel, revealed beneath the dirt and deteriorated glue-varnish the tangible existence of of what the restoration today is gradually retrieving.
“Although the book with Okamura’s photographs and the restoration that is now proceeding came about independently and for different reasons, the two are complementary, and Okamura’s book is today a valuable record of what for centuries had masked the true nature of Michelangelo’s painting; if the cleaning had not gone ahead, it would have been the sole means by which to achieve a proper or effective analysis of his work…” ~ Fabrizio Mancinelli, “Michelangelo at Work”, “The Sistine Chapel Michelangelo rediscovered”, London, 1986.
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The Sistine Chapel Restorations: Part I ~ Setting the Scene, Packing Them In
The Vatican authorities are in conservation crisis today because they stripped the Sistine Chapel frescoes bare in the 1980s and 1990s. They did so against material and historical evidence that Michelangelo had finished off his frescoes with additional glue or size-based a secco painting (see right and our posts of 1 April 2011 and 12 November 2012). That original, autograph material was removed in full knowledge that the stripped-down bare fresco surfaces would thereafter be attacked by atmospheric pollution unless given some other protective covering (see Appendix below). An attempt to coat the frescoes with synthetic resin (Paraloid B72) was abandoned leaving some surfaces clogged and the rest unprotected. The authorities then promised to install hi-tech paraphernalia that would somehow prevent the polluting atmosphere from making contact with the Chapel’s painted walls and ceiling (see caption at Fig. 4). As was shown in our previous post, that cockamamie promise was not delivered. Today, in a chapel increasingly over-crowded with paying visitors (see Fig. 1), these stripped-down frescoes stand in greater peril than ever.
Ironically, the “cleaning” of the ceiling, which arguably constitutes the greatest single restoration calamity of the 20th century, occurred at a time when picture restorers had skilfully rebranded themselves as safe, scientifically validated “conservators” of all that is valuable – even though Kenneth Clark had recently admitted to having founded the National Gallery’s science department in the late 1930s in order to dupe the public and wrong-foot restoration critics. A grandly titled “Laboratory for Scientific Research” had been created at the Vatican in 1922 on the “latest ideas” but during the 1980s Italian restorers admitted that running technical “tests” before restorations was professional “window-dressing” because it was always known in advance which materials were to be used.
Some restorers sincerely believed in the scientific hocus pocus that supposedly had trumped anachronistic and unacceptably “subjective” aesthetic responses. The appointed chief restorer of Michelangelo’s frescoes, Gianluigi Colalucci, was one such, insisting that: “Emotional and subjective considerations must not be permitted to intrude upon science”. At that time the Vatican’s curatorial and administrative authorities may not have sufficiently appreciated the extent to which every restoration of a great work of art is an accident waiting to happen: a collision of sublimity and incomprehension made tangible. In 1993, at the beginning of the fourth chapter of the JamesBeck/Michael Daley book “Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business and the Scandal”, we asked:
“If authentic painting by Michelangelo has been lost in the course of a scientific restoration, many questions need to be answered. Did a blunder occur because of or in spite of the use of a scientific approach? Has too great a dependence on scientific data undermined crucial powers of aesthetic discernment and judgement? Is the scientific method of restorers rigorous or slipshod? Is the scientific status of modern conservation legitimate or bogus? Do restorers always follow their own ground rules?”
In the last twenty years it has become clearer that the claimed scientific underpinnings of picture restoration methods were spurious and that an appreciation of the workings of art and its internal relationships is not to be gained through some analysis of material components in a laboratory, however highfalutin and expensive the “investigative” or “diagnostic” apparatus may be. Beyond its conceptually simplistic and aesthetically impoverished terms of reference, the very reporting of “scientific” conservation methods has lacked both critical rigour and methodological consistency. In practice conservation science has provided a flag of convenience under which fundamental artistic questions can be evaded while ever-more ambitiously grandiose, lavishly funded and spectacularly transforming projects are launched. The authorities at the Vatican seemed quite oblivious of the ease with which even the most modest restorations can escalate into dangerous and irreversible treatments.
In 1964 Dr Deoclecio Redig de Campos, the Vatican museums’ curator and director of restorations, launched a cautious cleaning of the 15th century frescoes by Perugino, Botticelli, Ghirlandio, Rosselli and Signoreli on the lower parts of the Sistine Chapel’s north and south walls. After 15 years, that programme led to the cleaning of two minor 16th century frescoes by Matteo da Lecce and van den Broecke on the east wall. By that date, direction had passed to Dr Fabrizio Mancinelli, the new curator (and soon to be, with Colalucci, the co-director of the Nippon Television Corporation-sponsored restoration of all of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes). As we reported in “Art Restoration”, Mancinelli decided that “Redig de Campos’s cautious policy of removing only part of the layer of grime and foreign substances…was not appropriate in this situation.”
What Mancinelli deemed appropriate was that the minor frescoes should be cleaned with the new aggressive cleaning compound AB 57, even though this would obliterate original painting applied a secco by the artists onto their frescoes when dry. Curiously, Mancinelli’s justification for this removal of authentic and historical material was primarily aesthetic. That is, he held that a cautious cleaning and repairing of the damaged original secco paints would give only “disappointing results” compared with what might be attained by what he termed “a more radical cleaning”. We should be absolutely clear: “radical” was a euphemism for stripping the paintings down to their bare fresco surfaces in order to introduce heightened (but inauthentic) colours. Although the programme was to prove unethical by restorers’ own professional codes, Mancinelli persuaded the authorities that the visual “gains” to be had by trading original material for chemically brightened colours on those two minor works would outweigh even a directly consequential need to “return to the side walls and [do] a more thorough job there too.” (Just as the slowest ship determines the speed of a convoy, so in decorated chapels the most brightly scrubbed surface sets the overall level of cleaning. Michelangelo’s fate was sealed.)
While restoring the east wall works in 1979, a single test of AB57 was made on one of Michelangelo’s lunettes (see Fig. 8 and, for the consequences, Figs. 4-7). Professor Carlo Pietrangeli, the director of the Vatican Museums, said in 1982 “the results were so encouraging that it was decided to take on the whole ceiling. By the summer of 1980 the work had begun.” As Pietrangeli told Patricia Corbett in the May 1982 Connoisseur, once AB57 was shown to deliver chromatically transformed frescoes, “No one was able to resist the temptation”. In 1987 Dr Walter Persegati, the Vatican Museums secretary and treasurer, said in the Bible Review “These tests brought forward such colours that we were both scared and excited…It was decided that the procedure developed for the cleaning of the van den Broeck and Matteo da Lecce was applicable to Michelangelo’s frescoes. Therefore, we decided we had to do it.”
Note that because it had been decided that it could be done, it was “therefore” also decided that it should be done. In Part II we investigate the means, the methods and the artistic consequences of that novel application of a new cleaning agent to the very old, very precious decorated surfaces of the Sistine Chapel. In doing so we also show why the Vatican’s curators were right to be scared.
“A major purpose of the conference was to underline a basic truth: the conservation of any work of art is doomed to failure unless equal emphasis is given to its past and its future vicissitudes…Scientists and historians worry that conservators can be too ready to intervene, too impatient of prior tests, and insufficiently heedful of future dangers.” ~ Kathleen Weil Garris Brandt, Professor of Fine Arts, at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, and spokeswoman for the Vatican on the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, reporting the proceedings of the “London symposium on the conservation of wall-paintings” in the November 1987 Burlington Magazine.
“There is therefore much concern about the future of the frescoes, given that no protective layer has been applied in this campaign (the controversial use of paraloid was abandoned at an early stage of the cleaning of the lunettes). The Vatican has decided to seal the windows and introduce an air-conditioning and filtration system. Doubts were expressed at the conference. Could the threat from faulty air-conditioning be worse than the threat from atmospheric pollution and mass tourism? ” ~ Caroline Elam, editor of the Burlington Magazine, reviewing the 1990 symposium on the Sistine ceiling restoration held in Rome to give preliminary consideration to the cleaning of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgement”.
“A ‘drunken herd’ of ‘unruly’ tourists is damaging Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel paintings, one of Italy’s leading arts figures claimed as the pope prepared to mark the 500th anniversary of the iconic frescoes’ creation.
Some 5 million people visit the chapel every year – sometimes as many as 20,000 in a single day — and an increasing number of experts are now arguing that mass tourism is damaging the paintings.
Despite a major, 14-year-long restoration project in the 1990s, they claim that the breath, sweat, dust and pollution brought in by visitors dramatically changes the Chapel’s humidity and temperature – factors to which frescoes are particularly sensitive…” ~ Claudio Lavanga, NBC News, 31 October 2012.
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“Pick Up A Pencil”
The theme of the new ArtWatch UK members’ Journal (see right) is “The Primacy of the Visual”. Failures to acknowledge, address, or even recognise visual evidence are examined. The text of Charles Hope’s 2011 James Beck Memorial Lecture is carried in full. Professor Hope cites failures of the National Gallery’s curators and restorers to address opponents’ arguments or to recognise the import of key historical documents on artistic practice. When Professor James Beck, the late founder of ArtWatch International, lent support to artist-critics of the Sistine Chapel restoration he came under vicious attacks from some scholarly peers – for all the world as if he had betrayed a priesthood of the visually ignorant. Prof Hope cites a letter of that kind. If artists do sometimes discomfort scholars, it is no presumption: knowing how art is made they are precisely the best qualified to detect its un-making. Here, the painter (and photographer) Gareth Hawker discusses both fundamental differences between painting and photography and the widespread failures to recognise these differences. His demonstration is timely. If (as we have argued elsewhere), art schools have given up the ghost with regard to teaching the traditional skills that formerly equipped artists to recognise restoration blunders, in the wider world of commercial film-making there are signs – notwithstanding giant leaps in the powers of digitalised image-making – of a renaissance in traditional art practices. We discussed this paradoxical relationship in connection with the extraordinary accomplishment of the hand-crafted animated film Frankenweenie. Another such heartening case is discussed opposite. [M. D.]
A Photograph is a Copy, not a Creation, Gareth Hawker writes:
“…we have realised that we should give more attention to photography”. So wrote the Director of the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny, in his introduction to the current exhibition, Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present . Several reviewers seem to agree. Tabish Khan wrote that, “…photography is a contemporary art form that can be just as inspiring and impressive as painting” . But photographs do not incorporate the high-level thinking that paintings do. It would be misleading to put them in the same category.
The difference between painting and photography is frequently glossed over. For example, many people suggest that the camera is a tool just like brushes and pencils. At first sight, this may appear to make sense. The photographer decides what to include in the picture, in the same way that a painter often does. He chooses where to place the camera; in which direction to point it; how far to zoom in on a subject; and when to press the shutter. He may select models, costumes, and arrange lighting. All these factors contribute to what is called the ‘scene’ – the image in the viewfinder. The ‘scene’ may be recorded by a photographer just as well as by a painter, so the argument goes: they just use different tools in order to complete the same task. However this is to ignore what the tools are used for. The camera is used to record the scene, while the brushes and pencils are used to analyse it. The importance of this analysis is often overlooked.
Photographers who have wanted to claim equal status with painters have made various approaches, all ignoring this analytical element. At first they blurred and smudged photographs in order to make them look like paintings. Then photographers claimed that theirs was a totally separate art form, a pure record of the scene. Some argued against this, saying that if a photograph were pure, it could not be artistic. Before this issue could be resolved, some writers swept it aside. They suggested that what mattered was, “conceiving an image in the brain and finding some way of expressing it” . What counted was the viewer’s response – whether a work, “spoke” to the viewer . This disregarded a significant factor: people do not respond to paintings in the same way as they do to photographs, especially if they can see that a painting provides evidence of thinking, in a way that a photograph does not.
Paintings look different from photographs because they are made differently. A painting is constructed from brushstrokes; each stroke the result of a decision. A painting may represent a scene, or it may represent nothing at all. A painting is an independent creation, whereas a photograph is dependant on the scene. A photograph can be made only if there is a scene to be copied.
A representational painting may be compared to the summary at the beginning of a scientific paper – the paragraph which is entitled, “Abstract”. Its writer makes a personal judgment about which are the most important topics dealt with in the paper, and writes a brief account of his own. The “Abstract” is a new and independent piece of writing, just as a representational painting is a new and independent analysis of the scene. In contrast, a photograph is like a photocopy of the whole scientific paper. The photocopy shows no analysis, and no judgment.
Brushstrokes are only the most basic way in which a painter’s analysis or abstraction may be seen. Another is in the simplification of the human figure – in its reconstruction in terms of geometrical solids, such as eggs and cylinders. Even a simple tracing – the lowest form of analysis – shows which lines the painter has considered to be more important than others.
To give a computing analogy: a photograph is like a bitmap image (which records only pixels – spots of colour), but a painting is like a vector image (which records instructions about where lines are to go). A tracing programme can convert a bitmap file into a vector file. The computer makes a simplification which looks similar to a paint-by-numbers drawing. This computer drawing may be thought of as the beginning of an attempt to imitate human analysis – a type of artificial intelligence – though the computer has a long way to go before it catches up with the human brain in this respect (Fig. 1). If anything may be thought of as being a tool comparable with brushes and pencils, it is a tracing programme (which helps to analyse), not a camera (which does not).
To express the difference in another way:
Scene = Photograph
(Scene = Photograph) × Analysis = Painting
Analysis is an essential part of what makes a representational painting interesting to look at; whereas what makes a photograph interesting to look at is the scene, not its treatment.
Analysis demands abstract thinking – whether it is done well or done badly. What distinguishes the great painter from the mediocrity is the quality of this thinking, not any manual skill. Anyone who can sign his name, already has enough manual skill to make a great drawing. (This includes drawing in its wider sense: deciding where to place marks made by the pencil or the brush, even when no outlines may be involved).
The modern digital camera provides the most effective means for recording the scene that has ever been devised. Strangely, many photographers want to use it for a different purpose, to express an interpretation – a purpose for which it is singularly unsuited. Some photographers deliberately introduce all sorts of inaccuracies which mean that the result is neither a pure substitute for the scene, nor an independent creation.
The classical case for photography’s status as an equal to painting was put forward by the man who was perhaps, “the most important figure in the history of the visual arts in America” – Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) . In his usage, the word ‘artist’ meant someone who, “got the spirit of the truth” . He held that only 0.1% of painters were artists, and only 0.1% of photographers were artists. But not everyone takes such an exalted view. For example, a tax inspector wants to know whether a painter is a house-painter or an artist, not whether he has, “got the spirit of the truth”. So when a painter says that he is an artist, he is simply describing his activity. He is not claiming to be either good or bad at his job: that is for others to decide. But when a photographer says that he is an artist he is claiming to be in the top 0.1% of his profession: he is pushing others to accept the valuation he has placed on his own work.
By using the word ‘artist’ in this way, Stieglitz moved attention away from a vital distinction; that between creating something new (a painting) and making a copy (a photograph). He persuaded many viewers to ignore analysis, and to concentrate on the selection and arrangement of a scene – on pointing and shooting.
Stieglitz’s advocacy, along with that of other theorists, seems to have desensitised many viewers. They see only the subject which has been represented. They fail to notice that a painting exhibits the working of a mind – not just in the choice of subject, but in every single stroke. One consequence of this desensitisation became apparent when the Sistine ceiling was treated by restorers, and much of the best painting ever produced was wiped off. The picture of a man looks like a man, whether it is drawn well or drawn badly. Most historians were satisfied with what remained after the paint-stripping because they could still identify the subjects which had been depicted. Very few noticed how drastically the quality of the drawing had been reduced.
Many people were better informed about these issues in the days when Michelangelo painted his great work. Contemporaries who saw it for the for the first time commented at least as much on the power of its drawing, as on its subject matter . The way in which influential men looked at nudes in those days may be compared with the way in which they look at motor cars now: with an appreciation of the beauty of engineering and construction – an appreciation which derives in part from an understanding of how all the parts connect together.
The paint-stripping made nonsense of some of the connections in Michelangelo’s nudes. His contemporaries would have been appalled, but most of today’s historians and television presenters do not even notice. They focus on the imagery and the iconography, not on the drawing. It is as if they were waiting for the work to ‘speak’ to them – for the artistic content to make itself felt. But, being sensitive only to subject-matter, that is all that they are able to see. Such narrowly prepared minds will respond only to the crudest visual stimulus (the colours looking brighter after the top layer of paint has been removed, for example).
Just as the critical response to painting has become limited, so the meaning of the word Art has expanded – to such a degree that almost anything seems to be embraced by it, including photography. However painting remains distinct: it is a creation which is independent, and which can embody the kind of analysis described above. This is why painting may be categorised with the higher expressions of the human mind, along with poetry and philosophy. Photography does not fit into this category because it cannot display abstract thinking.
But painting is now so little appreciated that, to many people, it seems comparable with photography. This has allowed photography to be called Art, and so to enter the National Gallery. Arguably this is the same lack of discrimination that has allowed paint-stripping to take place, not only on the Sistine ceiling, but on almost all the great works of painting in the Western World, including those in the National Gallery.
“Giving more attention to photography”, seems to be one more example of this downward trend, but perhaps there is a glimmer of hope. When a great artist’s paint has been removed from a picture, the decline in its artistic quality is irreversible; but a decline in critical awareness is different: it can be reversed. At present, many people are only distantly aware that, in every brushstroke, a representational painting gives evidence of analytical thinking. Perhaps the exhibition at the National Gallery will help to promote this awareness. If so, it will have served a very useful purpose.
1 The National Gallery, Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present, Yale University Press (9 Oct 2012), ISBN-10: 1857095456, ISBN-13: 978-1857095456
The exhibition runs from 31 October 2012 to 20 January 2013
2 londonist. Art-review-seduced-by-art-photography-national-gallery. Retrieved 8 November 2012
3 Gerry Badger. Collecting Photography. London: Mitchell Beazley, 2003. ISBN 1-84000-726-5 p23
4 Gerry Badger. Collecting Photography. London: Mitchell Beazley, 2003. ISBN 1-84000-726-5 p24
5 Richard Whelan, Stieglitz on Photography, Aperture, 2000, p ix
6 Alfred Stieglitz, Is Photography a Failure?, The Sun, New York, March 14, 1922 – reprinted in, Richard Whelan, Stieglitz on Photography, Aperture, 2000, p 229
7 http://artwatchuk.wordpress.com/2012/10/01/12th-november-2012/ Retrieved 12 November 2012
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Coming to Life: Frankenweenie – A Black and White Michelangelo for Our Times
As an organisation with an essentially critical raison d’etre we get few opportunities to celebrate bona fide creative achievements. This post, in part, is an exception. Longer than usual, it is a tale of two separate but cross-linking events. One is the case of a dog that has not barked, the other is a story of a dog that has been brought back from the dead. To a surprising degree, the latter throws light on the former, which case we consider first.
The 500th anniversary of the completion in 1512 of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings has gone almost entirely un-celebrated. On October 31st, in a small “in-house” service marking the 500th anniversary of Pope Julius II’s service celebrating the completion of the ceiling, Pope Benedict XVI asked a group of cardinals, Vatican employees and guests to imagine what it must have been like 500 years ago, adding that contemplating the frescoes renders them “more beautiful still, more authentic. They reveal all of their beauty. It is as if during the liturgy, all of this symphony of figures come to life, certainly in a spiritual sense, but inseparably also aesthetically.”
Apologists for the transforming 1980-90 restoration of the ceiling are nonplussed by the missed opportunity for a mega-beano half-millennium art celebration. In truth, it is not hard to see why this opportunity should have been foregone by the Vatican. Just two decades after completion of the most intensely controversial restoration of modern times, the state-of-the-art air-conditioning system installed to protect the chemically stripped-down plaster ceiling is failing to cope with the “unimaginable amounts of dirt” and massive atmospheric fluctuations caused by the Sistine Chapel’s throngs of paying visitors whose disrespectful raucous behaviour is a source of shame and censure within Italy. On November 1st it was reported that the Vatican has “no plans to try to limit tourists”. There is not a lot to celebrate here.
This latest failure of an “ultimate restoration” to anticipate and meet future conservation needs carries an implicit call for further urgent conservation but, with it, an indication of art restoration’s specious philosophy and too-frequently destructive consequences. When Art begets art there is pure gain, a life-giving gift. The old art remains to exert its own powers; the new brings fresh experiences and perspectives; running in tandem, each enriches the other as traditions are extended and invigorated (see Figs. 29 and 30). Restoration begetting restoration is another matter altogether.
Art restoration is not a bona fide life-conferring process. Because Art is self-renewing and self-extending, it does not follow that its historically rooted artefacts may be renewed endlessly, routinely, by technicians. To the contrary, in order to read Art’s trajectories it is imperative that its works remain unadulterated. Restorers, with their ever-more ambitious and presumptuous attempts to undo and redo earlier restorations and to reverse all evidence of age, leave old works of art as increasingly spurious impostors. It cannot be otherwise. This is not a question of finding the right “Professional Ethics”. Restorers cannot act outside of their own heads and times, which is why the most authentic old works of art remain those that are least restored. Nor can restorers submit to criticism and evaluation, as all bona fide creators must do. Their professional mystique must be preserved at all times. It rests on impenetrable screeds of pseudo-science and systems of technical “analysis” that preclude evaluation of the optical consequences of interventions on works of visual art.
In this depressing art cultural milieu it was startling and refreshing to encounter the recent stunningly brilliant black and white photographic stills promoting Tim Burton’s new animated film Frankenweenie (Figs. 1, 3, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 23 and 27). The wit and force of these images rewards examination. The technical key to what might otherwise seem an improbable (if not blasphemous) artistic connection between the unique theologically-charged high art enterprise of Michelanglo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and an animated horror film for children in which one reviewer detected an anti-creationism polemic, can be found in the film’s eschewing of colour, and in Michelangelo’s superimposition of black painting over his own frescoes.
A more general connection is that, for all the marketing hullabaloo of expensively made films, Frankenweenie proves to have been a remarkably art-driven and shaped enterprise (see Figs. 10 to 14). That the full-blown cinematic realisation of this film’s essentially personal and idiosyncratic vision required the specialised contributions of an enormous range of talents and expertises, links it organisationally to the ambitious artistic productions of the great Renaissance art studios.
In part, the power of Burton’s images stems from the simple optical fact that the contrast between a pure solid black and a clean white is the most potent tool in the visual box. But even more, it stems from the fact that between those graphic poles an effectively infinite but individually discernible continuum of values (tints and tones) can be run. An examination of the highly disciplined, imaginatively constructive deployment of such tone/values in Frankenweenie helps pinpoint the nature and the scale of the artistic losses suffered through the “restoration” of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings (see Figs. 2, 8, 9, 19, 20, 21, 22, 31, 32, and 33).
Burton’s vivid black and white photographic imagery truly participates in one of modern Western art’s most distinguishing traits. From Alberti to Ruskin, artists have appreciated and explained how tonal gradations can magically conjure three-dimensional structures (form) on flat pictorial surfaces. Until the 1960s every art student learnt to manipulate tonal values in this fashion. Tragically, such conventions have been discarded in (most) fine art education and in much of today’s fine art practice. Fortunately, Cinema and Photography generally have sought (however awkwardly) to absorb those ancient empowering lessons, and in Burton’s hands they find singularly powerful expression.
To take Michelangelo first: he did not want the job of painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling. He wished to work on a massive carved marble tomb of sculpted figures. When compelled by the Pope (Julius II) to paint the ceiling as a novice frescoist, he attempted to get out of the job as soon as he encountered technical difficulties. He was made to continue after being instructed on avoiding future errors (by mixing plaster properly) and concealing existing ones (by applying transparent washes of glue/size). The onerous duty turned into a labour of love and on completion of his hurried, direct painting into the wet plaster of the ceiling, Michelangelo continued working on the dried fresco surface with dark pigments bound with glue or size – to the fury of an impatient Julius II. With those additional (or “auxilliary”) paints he added details and generally strengthened and revised his designs so as to make his pictorial effects more dramatically and unprecedentedly sculptural.
Between 1980 and 1990 the frescoes were transformed in a filmed restoration sponsored by NTV, the Nippon Television Corporation. The restorers contended that the paint applied on the dried frescoes’ surface was not Michelangelo’s and they removed it to artistically adverse and violently controversial effect (for a full account of which, see “Art Restoration ~ The Culture, the Business and the Scandal”, by James Beck and Michael Daley, chapters III and IV). With the work left less sculptural and more stridently coloured, the restorers pronounced the “discovery” of a New and True Michelanglo – an artist who, contrary to all previous understanding, was a brilliant colourist who had abandoned “traditional chiaroscuro modelling” in favour of vibrating “electic contrasts of hue and much irridescence”. This post hoc rationale defied both historical testimony and technical evidence.
It is a matter of record both that Michelangelo made sculptural models of the ceiling figures to study the shadows that their forms would cast (see Fig. 9), and that the shadows he had painted onto the dry ceiling were copied countless times from within his own lifetime until the time of the last restoration (see Figs. 19 to 22). When Michelangelo was compelled to stop painting, the world was astonished by his sculptural – not chromatic – effects. He had revolutionised mural painting by imposing upon the chapel’s curved ceiling the (inverted and paraphrased) monumental architectural tomb peopled by carved figures that he would have preferred to be executing. The restorers, having injured the material realisation of Michelangelo’s revolutionary pictorial conception, demanded a re-writing of art history. That so many scholars were intitially compliant might testify to a profession that writes more than it looks and that uses images as illustrations to theories or texts, rather than as records of the most primary of all sources – the works of art themselves.
Thus, the restorers and their art historical supporters jointly insisted, against hard evidence, that what had been taken for centuries to be carefully studied sculptural effects were deceiving byproducts of “candle smoke and still more of glues” applied by previous restorers. Their suggestion that such phenomena were responsible for “the kind of suggestive painting by shadows for which Michelangelo was admired until a few years ago” was patently absurd: how could gradual arbitrary accumulations have arranged themselves along Michelangelo’s designs so as to enhance his sculptural effects? Conversely, if those effects really had been products of gradual accidental accretions over the centuries, what might have deceived Michelangelo’s own contemporaries, biographers and copyists into believing that they already existed?
Consider further the very weight of the historical evidence. One of Michelangelo’s biographers, Giorgio Vasari, marvelled at his ability to conjure seemingly palpable bodies that had somehow wrested themselves from the surfaces on which they had been painted, into the (seemingly) real space of the artist’s invention:
“Then who is not filled with admiration and amazement at the awesome sight of Jonah…The vaulting [of the ceiling] naturally springs forward, following the curve of the masonry; but through the force of art it is apparently straightened out by the figure of Jonah, which bends in the opposite direction; and thus vanquished by the art of design with its lights and shades, the ceiling even appears to recede.”
Vasari’s testimony on Michelangelo’s deployment of “lights and shades” to sculptural effect was echoed in the short biography written by Ascanio Condivi, a student and assistant through whom Michelangelo is believed to have spoken by proxy. For Condivi, too, the figure of Jonah was:
“…most admirable of all…because contrary to the curve of the vault and owing to the play of light and shadow, the torso which is foreshortened backward is in the part nearest the eye, and the legs which project forward are in the part which is farthest.”
As a single instance of evidence, consider the copy of Jonah shown at Fig. 22. This ink and wash record was made by Giulio Clovio who was known as “the Michelangelo of small works” and recognised by Vasari as a most “excellent illuminator or painter of small things…who has far surpassed all others in this exercise”. His copy happens also to record a group of figures below Jonah. These figures had been painted by Michelangelo beteween 1508 and 1512 but were destroyed by him in 1535 when he prepared the altar wall to receive his single massive Last Judgement mural. Thus, we can see through Clovio’s copy of those long lost passages of Michelangelo painting that strong and cast shadows were decisively present when the painting was brand new. A nude youth then held the tablet bearing Jonah’s name. That figure and the tablet both cast shadows onto the very wall on which they were painted. Michelanglo had thus employed a trompe l’oeil pictorial device to deceive the eye into believing that the figure stood in front of the surface to which it adheres. On this testimony alone claims that Michelangelo’s “suggestive painting by shadows” was a product of “candle smoke and still more of glues” should never have been uttered.
Where the Vatican’s restorers cavalierly discarded Michelangelo’s shadows, in Frankenweenie, Tim Burton has laboured lovingly to produce his shadows. It is remarkable to how great an extent photography and film-making today have been informed and nourished by fine art conventions and the lessons of painting (see Fig. 16). On the influence of painting on the great cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, for example, see the tribute paid to him by Martin Scorcese in Fig. 15. On the early cinematic influences on Burton, see Figs. 4 and 5. It is also remarkable to how great an extent film-making has taken possession of the traditional humanly engaging story-telling and symbolic functions of art that contemporary museum and gallery “fine artists” have abandoned. With animated films, where the characters and their settings are drawn or modelled, distinctions between artistic and photographic media lose almost all force.
Burton’s own film – a remake of his earlier (1984) half-hour, live-action film of a boy who resurrects his pet dog after a fatal accident – was made on an acknowledged artistic impulse: “I’d look at the drawings I did originally, and there was a simplicity to them I wanted to get” (see Fig. 11). Where Michelangelo had completed his vast cycle of painting with hundreds of figures – and probably thousands of preparatory studies – in just four years, thirty modellers (led by puppet makers Ian Mackinnon and Pete Saunders and the animation director, Trey Thomas) each spent over a year working on Burton’s 86 minutes long film. Technically speaking, the film is a 3D black and white stop-motion animation. That is, models of characters are placed in model sets to be moved in tiny increments each of which is separately recorded in a process that is notoriously slow and laborious – a skilled animator might produce five seconds of footage in a week. Burton, a former Disney animator, opted for this method in preference to digital animation for a variety of reasons but, perhaps, primarily because “There’s an amazing amount of artistry in it”, as he told Mark Salisbury in the Daily Telegraph.
This is certainly the case. In the first instance the models for every character and prop are made by hand (see Fig. 10). Then they are then painted. Then they are arranged on sets. Then they are then lit. Finally they are animated and photographed. The models themselves exert great appeal to Burton who loves their handcrafted tactile feel. He loves the challenge of embedding characters in inanimate objects and then “bringing them to life” through motion and changing expressions and relationships. The tactility of the models is deliberately enhanced by showing the film in 3D: “…it’s the closest thing to walking on the set of stop-motion animated film, seeing what the artists have done, feeling those textures and feeling the dimensional quality you get when you are there.” (A delicious glimpse of the artistry evident in the sets by Rick Heinrichs can be found in the online animation magazine Skwigly.)
Capturing individual characters in the models was preceded by immense thought and study. For “Sparky”, Burton required the animators to visit dog shows, and to study and film dogs in the studio. This is very much in the Disney tradition: in Katherine and Richard Greene’s 1991 “The Man Behind the Magic”, a photograph shows no fewer than eighteen draughtsmen and an instructor, surrounding and drawing a live deer from every angle as preparation for the film Bambi. Disney is quoted as holding that “We cannot do fantastic things…unless we first know the real”. (Modern art schools notwithstanding, the Renaissance and its studio practices are not yet extinct.)
The beauty of Burton’s enterprise is that everything in it is given a value and every value serves an express purpose in terms of physical structure, characterisation, emotional force, and/or narrative development. When made, the models were painted in monochrome, in shades of black, white and grey (apart from grass, flowers, drapes and certain other items) because, for Burton “The black and white is very much part of the story, the character and the emotion of it. There’s something very pleasing about it, seeing this kind of animation this way, a certain depth, and the way things go in and out of shadows…” On which, let us further consider Michelangelo’s “suggestive painting by shadows”.
In Fig. 18 we see an apparently brilliant (but in truth deceivingly) “cinematic” photographic exploitation of cast shadows. In Fig. 19 we see (on the left) that before restoration Jonah’s left foot cast a strong shadow across the floor, which shadow merged with another dark shadow under the seat. The shadow under the seat “drew” a sharp, tonally contrasting vertical boundary between the lighter front-facing plane of the upright block that supports the seat and the receding (shaded) side face of that block. To the right of that block (and Jonah’s left leg) another, albeit less strong, shadowed zone threw the block’s right-hand edge into relief. After the restorers removed what they took to be dirt and disfigurement, the shadow cast by the foot disappeared (as seen on the right) – as also did much of the shadow under the bench, thereby exposing the previously hidden side of the upright block. The shadow to the right of the block was also weakened.
Mere dirt settling on a painting would weaken and blur outlines and edges. It would lighten dark sufaces and darken light ones, thereby compressing the range of values present. It is technically inconceivable that it might sharpen edges by intensifying contrasts. There is no dirt (or discoloured varnish) that is simultaneously capable of lightening already light surfaces while darkening dark ones. Had the shadows really been applied, as is claimed, by later restorers, the paint would have run into cracks in the plaster ceiling. And yet we know that it had not. We know that it had in fact cracked as the plaster had cracked. The paint was therefore applied when the plaster was smooth and new – because we also know that the plaster had cracked before any restorers went near it. Besides all of which, as we have seen, the shadows were recorded before 1535. The inescapable truth is that restorers removed painting that could only have been Michelangelo’s own.
Burton’s handcrafted models have an immediate engaging presence but the means of their humorous psychologically charged personalities are complex and artistically sophisticated. They display distinctly sculptural qualities and the satisfyingly palpable presences of diminutive figures in a real space that is continuous with our own. We are drawn into their world much as Michelangelo brought living old testament figures into ours. For force of cartoon-like effect and clarity, Burton’s heads are highly stylised and plastically simplified. Of Sparky, Burton explains: “Obviously he looks like a cartoon. It’s not like he’s an anatomically correct dog” (see Figs. 10 to 14).
Formally speaking, these sculptural simplifications might be related to the abstractions of 20th sculptors such as Brancusi who were in pursuit of “pure” or “significant” form (see Figs. 23, 24 and 25). However, plastic simplification is only part of the artistic/expressive equation with Burton’s Gothic characters who must be sentient engaged actors in intense psychologically-charged emotional dramas.
The chief expressive features of a face are the eyes and the mouth. Making the eyes large and the jaws small enhances childhood traits and vulnerabilities (see Figs. 1, 3, 14 and 27). The placement of the black pupils in the large wide-open eyes permits acute laser-like precision of gaze, as is seen to masterful effect at Fig. 14 in the affectionate twin-engagement of the boy and his beloved and devoted dog. The mouth is the most emotionally expressive feature of all, and although childhood-small in these characters, it becomes a vehicle of astonishingly subtle expressions (see Figs. 1, 3 and, especially, 27).
The antithesis of Brancusi’s plastic self-compression is Daumier’s cartoon-like sculptures where the imperatives of caricature pull the head this way and that with scant regard for any residual internal self-composure (Fig. 26). If the subject in Daumier has a bird-like personna, the nose may become a beak and the forehead may recede at an alarming rate. Burton’s compactly eloquent pebble-smooth but animated heads are a remarkably successful synthesis of these disparate sculptural traditions.
In terms of connections with Michelangelo’s painting, particular consideration should be given to the brilliantly combined effects of modelling and lighting in Frankenweenie. The boy’s head shown at Fig. 27 is articulated with seamless lucidity. It also happens to be exquisitely lit. Everyone knows the Impressionists to be painters of light but, then, light is fair game for painters who may produce their own (artistically, not literally). For the apprehension of form sculptors depend on actual light in the world. (Sculptors can, however, create an implicit light in their own graphic renderings of form, and may even depict forms that are lit as if from within, as seen at Fig. 28.) Cinematic model-making animators are advantaged: they make their own forms and may then provide their own expressively optimal actual light. The lessons of cinema, in this regard, are the more valuable because the relationship between sculptors’ forms and light may be insufficiently appreciated – certainly sculptures suffer terribly at the hands of exhibition designers. Rodin famously described sculpture as the art of the bump and the hollow – or, perhaps more accurately, as an art of hollows and projections: “de creux et de bosses”. He demonstrated this claim to Paul Gsell (“Art, by Auguste Rodin”, Paul Gsell, 1912) in the following manner:
“One late afternoon, when I was with Rodin in his atelier, darkness set in while we talked… He lighted a lamp as he spoke, took it in his hand, and led me towards a marble statue which stood upon a pedestal in a corner of the atelier. It was a delightful little antique copy of the Venus di Medici. Rodin kept it there to stimulate his own inspiration while he worked.
‘Come nearer,’ he said. ‘What do you notice?’ he asked. At the first glance I was extraordinarily struck by what was suddenly revealed to me. The light so directed, indeed, disclosed numbers of slight projections and depressions upon the surface of the marble which I should never have suspected…At the same time he slowly turned the moving stand which supported the Venus. As he turned, I still noticed in the general form of the body a multitude of almost imperceptible roughnesses. What had at first seemed simple was really of astonishing complexity. Rodin threw up his head smiling.
‘Is it not marvellous?’ he cried. ‘Confess that you did not expect to discover so much detail. Just look at the numberless undulations of the hollow which unites the body to the thigh…notice all the voluptuous curvings of the hip…And, now, here, the adorable dimples along the loins…You almost expect, when you touch this body, to find it warm…’”
Unfortunately, Rodin’s demonstrations were not recorded on film (as far as we know) – although a short film does exist of Henry Moore and Kenneth Clark making a nocturnal visit with a lamp to the British Museum’s Greek and Roman collection in order to re-enact Rodin’s lesson. In any event, in the case of Burton’s boy’s head, at Fig. 27, every depression and prominence finds beautiful expression in subtle tonal transitions that would have warmed Rodin’s heart. There is pictorial/plastic alchemy here, as there once was in Michelangelo’s frescoes. The softly continuous undulations of the head are gently disclosed within a dramatic over-arching artificiality of illumination that sets the relatively bright head off against a Great Gothic Darkness. Within the stridency of these clashing lights and darks, the subtlest emotional expression of the mouth is perfectly captured.
The expression of a mouth is controlled by the interplay of many facial muscles and it is notoriously difficult to capture, as even so great a portraitist as John Singer Sargent ruefully noted (“A portrait is a picture in which there is something not quite right about the mouth”). In this model the play of facial muscles at the mouth has given rise to a subtle but distinctive mini-topography of light-catching bosses and light-evading depressions that perfectly express the boy’s finely balanced state of delight and trepidation/wonderment. The artistry here is consumate – this is a mouth to rival Ingres’s or Holbein’s in the precision of its forms and its delicacy of expression. We see another living expression evoked in a painting at Figs. 29 and 30 where Picasso, in one of his greatest neo-classical inventions, has not modelled actual forms but evoked them by simulating an optimal play of light and shade on his imagined forms with a myriad of mosaic-like deftly placed and adjusted patches of tone.
In the Michelangelo head seen in Fig. 2, we see how (before restoration) the artist had expressed sculptural forms by drawing and by tonal manipulation. The tones disclose a three-dimensional head held in very specific and sculpturally revealing lighting. Long before cinema, in his painting, Michelangelo was simultaneously his own model-maker, lighting specialist and recording “camera man”. (This is not to claim that he, in any sense, invented or anticipated photography. Rather, it is to note the extent to which photography was a mechanically aided outgrowth of pre-existing artistic preoccupations.) Before discussing the specific lighting scheme Michelangelo deployed, it might be helpful to consider something of the great variety of lighting options that cinema and photography show to be available. Brilliant examples of lighting made for the purpose of specific and self-consciously artistic effects from the 1920s to the 1950s in the Kobal collection (see Figs. 6, 7 and 18) are illustrated and technically explained in the marvellously instructive book “Hollywood Portraits ~ Classic Shots and How to Take them” by Roger Hicks, a writer on photography, and Christopher Nisperos, a studio portrait photographer who specialises in Hollywood-style photographs (which subject he has studied for nearly thirty years).
In their examination of the photographs, the authors deduce from personal knowledge and the evidence of the images themselves, how many sources of light (lamps) were employed and where they were positioned in relation to the subject. With each photograph a diagram shows the likely positioning of the light sources. In the course of this highly instructive exercise, photography is seen to acknowledge great indebtedness to painting. Such technical analysis of photographic means has, we believe, direct application to the analysis of changes made by restorers to the artistic values of painters, as is discussed at Figs. 8, 19, 27 and 31-33.
In figs. 6 and 7 we see two heads of two beautiful women that have been expertly lit to very different expressive purposes. In the portrait of Ingrid Bergman (Fig. 6) the lighting is soft and greatly emphasises the invitingly tactile values of the wool clothing, the hair, and, above all, of the face itself, which is a perfect essay in the soft plastic undulations that Rodin so cherished in the “radiant appearance of living flesh” found in the finest sculptures of late antiquity. In the portrait of Lana Turner (Fig. 7), a more self-consciously sculptural purpose is evident as the beauty of the subject’s head is directly juxtaposed and equated with both a classical bust and a bouquet of flowers. This portrait is more intensely lit so as to contrast the planar divisions between the front face of the head and its shadowed sides, and to isolate the features of the eyes and mouth. The lights and the darks generally are placed with the utmost calculation, but to the end of a more chilling, marbled perfection – here, the groomed perfection of the coiffure extends no invitation to touch. Every part of the subject’s head and shoulders is drawn with the utmost Bronzino-like clarity by means of carefully adjusted tonal contrast: where the face is brightest there is a dark shadow. Where the blonde hair sinks into dark shadows there is a lighter background. However, these seeming photographically recorded artful placements of value have, the authors disclose, been achieved with the assistance of considerable photographic retouching, which practice was extensively prevalent in the portraits under examination (see comments at Fig. 7).
In Michelangelo’s (unrestored) head at Fig. 2 we see a treatment of background lighting that is, like that of the Lana Turner portrait, subservient to the clear plastic expression of form. Within the head, however, Michelangelo deployed a much wider range of half-tones. His head runs progressively from its brightly lit profile of the face to a very darkly shaded neck and shoulder. The bright profile is emphasised and thrown into relief by a shaded background, while the very dark back of the neck is set off against a light background. We see in Fig. 8, however, that after “restoration” the logic and the dispositions of the tones have been massively weakened and subverted: the dark ground at the face’s contour has been largely removed; the consistent form-disclosing tonal progression within the shading of the head (from brightest light on the upper right to the strongest darks on the left) has been horrendously undermined. This head now looks as if lit by a multiplicity of form-flattening lamps
But that is not all the damage. If one looks carefully at the left contour at the back of the head, it is evident that the very design of Michelanglo’s head has been changed. The forms have been reduced. The space, for example, between the body of the hair and the little plaited “pony tail” has grown larger. This feature of the coiffure has grown smaller and smoother. We have seen recently how a restorer at the National Galleries of Scotland promised to “improve Titian’s contours” with the assistance of his director. Who might have authorised this redrawing of Michelangelo’s contours? Or was the change simply not noticed? Whichever, the more closely one looks into the details of this restored work the more evident the losses of Michelangelo’s work become.
In Fig. 31 we see how, before restoration, the aperture of the nostril was larger. We see how shading that had made the corner of the mouth tuck more covincingly into the forms of the cheek has been sacrificed. We see how the background had been darkened by systematic parallel vertical strokes of black. The restorers deny that such work was Michelangelo’s own. Once again, they defy historical testimony. Giovanni Battista Armenino went to Rome in 1550 and stayed for seven years copying the “best Pictures”, including Michelangelo’s very recently painted Last Judgement (which was made between between 1536 and 1541). In 1587 Armenino produced a treatise on fresco painting in which he noted that, as frescoes begin to dry and no longer absorb pigments with same effectiveness, the painter must:
“…then finish it of with moist and dark shade tints…the muscles of the naked figures as being of greater difficulty, are painted by hatching them in different directions with very liquid shade tints, so that they appear of a texture like granite; and there are very brilliant examples of this painted by the hand of Michelangelo…they can be perfectly harmonized by retouching them in secco…in retouching the dark parts in this manner, there are some painters who make a watercolour tint of black and fine lake mixed together, with which they retouch the naked figures and produce a most beautiful effect, because they make the hatchings upon the painting, as is usual to do while drawing upon paper with black lead…Some persons temper these dark tints with gum, some with thin glue…this I affirm from what I have both seen and done and also what I have been told by the best painters.”
When the ceiling was examined in the 19th century by the painter and fresco expert, Charles Heath Wilson, he found that not only had Michelangelo’s ancient size painting cracked originally as the plaster had cracked but that it now melted readily to the touch of a wet finger. In accordance with Armenino, Wilson saw that the surface painting consisted of:
“…a finely ground black, mixed with size…The shadows of the draperies have been boldy and solidly reouched with this size colour, as well as the shadows on the backgrounds…other parts are glazed with same material, and even portions of the fresco are passed over with size, without any admixture of colour, precisely as the force of water colour drawings is increased with washes of gum. ..These retouchings, as usual with all the masters of the art at the time, constituted the finishing process or as Condivi expresses it, alluding to to it in the history of these frescoes, ‘l’ultima mano’. They were evidently done all at the same time and therefore when the scaffold was in place.”
All of that retouching has gone but record of it survives. In 1967/8 the writer, painter and former art critic of Time, Alexander Eliot and his film-maker wife, (now the late) Jane Winslow Eliot, spent over 500 hours on the scaffold making The Secret of Michelangelo, Every Man’s Dream, in the course of which film they noted that:
“With the exception of the previously restored Prophet Zachariah, almost everything we saw on the barrel vault came clearly from Michelangelo’s own inspired hand. There are passages of the finest, the most delicately incisive draughtsmanship imaginable.”
Someday, the Eliots’ film (made for ABC Television) might be re-shown, but meanwhile, Alexander Eliot’s testimony is now on the record in a new full-length film/DVD biography, A Light in the Dark: The Art and Life of Frank Mason, in which he and other early campaigners against the restoration (including the late painter, Frank Mason, and the late Professor James Beck) are given voice on the Sistine Chapel restoration. Not least of the delights among this film’s precious and historical footage, are Tom Wolfe’s account of his lessons in Frank Mason’s painting classes at the Art Students League, New York, and the sight of the former Metropolitan Museum of Art director, the late Thomas Hoving, belligerently boasting that he himself had helped sponge from the ceiling the “filth” that was in truth the last stages of Michelangelo’s painting.
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The “World’s worst restoration” and the Death of Authenticity
When news broke of the 81 years old painter Cecilia Gimenez’s disastrous restoration of a painting of Christ in her local church, the world fell about laughing (see Figs. 2 to 5). The distressed restorer has taken to her bed as people queue to see the now infamous monkey-faced Christ and, wishing to preserve the hilarity, over 5,000 wags have signed a petition to block attempts to “return the painting to its pre-restoration glory” – as if such an outcome might credibly be in prospect.
With one honourable exception (Fig. 1) commentators failed to grasp that while this debacle is an extreme case it is not an aberration within modern art restoration practices. To the contrary, adulterations of major works of art are commonplace, seemingly systemic products of a booming, insufficiently monitored international art conservation nexus. In our previous post it was shown both how a steamboat painted by Turner sank without trace during two top-flight restorations at the US Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, and, how Renoir’s oeuvre is being traduced across museums. Here, to show that it is not just in sleepy Spanish churches that paintings are risk, we reprise a few of the professional art world’s own most radically controversial – and officially sanctioned – restorations.
The Observer columnist, Barbara Ellen, having good sport with the Spanish Incident (see Fig. 2), hoped a wave of copycat vigilante restorations (“Let’s nip into the Louvre and give the Mona Lisa something to smirk about”) would not ensue. Her nightmare has been “virtually” realised – Fig. 3. When saying that Ms Gimenez perhaps had not realised “that, as a rule, professional art restorers don’t start work with a bucket of Flash and some Brillo pads”, she assumed too much. While Brillo pads were skipped at the Sistine Chapel, bucket loads of oven-cleaner-like substances were repeatedly brushed onto and washed from Michelangelo’s Ceiling frescoes to the artistically injurious consequences described below and at Fig. 23. As we reported on April 1st 2011 – and that was no joke – the Vatican’s restorers’ own account of their experimental fresco cleaning method read as follows:
“…Removal of retouchings and repaintings with a mixed gelatinous solvent, consisting of ammonium bicarbonate, sodium bicarbonate, Desogen (a surf-actant and anti-fungal agent), carboxymethylcellulose (a thixotropic agent), dissolved in distilled water. Mixture acts on contact. The times of application, rigorously measured, were:
“First application: 3 minutes, followed by removal, washing with water. Left to dry for 24 hours.
“Second application: 3 minutes, followed by removal, washing and leaving to dry as before. If necessary, and locally only, small applications, followed by plentiful final washing.
“In the case of salt efflorescences consisting of calcium carbonate, there was added to the solvent mixture a saturated solution of dimethylformamide…
“Final treatment: the thorough, complete and overall application of a solution of Paraloid B72 diluted to 3% in organic solvent, removed from the surface of the pictorial skin by the combined action almost simultaneously of organic solvent and distilled water, which coagulates the surface acrylic resin dissolved by the solvent.”
A quick rinse with Flash might have been kinder.
There are three component parts in the professional restoration armoury: taking material off; putting material on; and, defending and promoting the said removals and additions with techno/aesthetic reassurances. Notwithstanding all supposedly science-validated self-justifications (reports on restorations are invariably written by the restorers themselves), the proper and appropriate test of a restoration is aesthetic appraisal of the resulting changes. It is reassuring that so many recognise that the transformation made to the Spanish painting shown at Fig. 5 constitutes a gross artistic injury. Perhaps the less extreme but also gratuitous injuries recently inflicted by restorers at the Louvre on the Veronese figure and face shown at Figs. 6 to 10 (and here reported on December 28th 2010) might also be acknowledged as the very crime against art and history that they constitute.
As shown at Fig. 10, even when the Louvre’s restorers were caught having secretly re-repainted the already repainted and publicly criticised Veronese face, the museum maintained a brazen official insouciance. The authorities do these things because they can and, presumably, because they do not know better. They ignore criticisms because they can and again, presumably, because they do not comprehend their force and their gravity.
In Figs. 11 to 26 we show the variously unfortunate consequences of restorers taking off and putting on material. (Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, every unhappy restoration is so in its own way.) It is widely recognised in the art trade that pictures untouched or rarely touched by restorers enjoy better conditions than many-times restored works. For that reason, a high premium is placed on such rare but fortunate works. This reality notwithstanding, nothing seems capable of restraining the tide of restorations.
In Figs. 11 and 13 we see two successive restorers at work on the same figure in the same mural, Leonardo’s “Last Supper”, in Milan. It is a long-standing complaint that restorers thrive by undoing and redoing each others’ handiwork. In Fig. 11 the restorer Mauro Pelliccioli is removing paint with a knife. His restoration, the first post war intervention on the notoriously unstable mural, was highly acclaimed at the time. His philosophy had been to remove earlier restorers’ repaint where it concealed original paint-work by Leonardo, but to leave it in place when covering only bare wall (- see our post of February 8th 2012). In Figure 13 Pelliccioli’s former student and assistant, Pinin Brambilla Barcilon, is seen repainting Leonardo’s mural (- or, as restorers prefer, “reintegrating” the remains of original paint with fresh additional paint). Given that an estimated 80 per cent of Leonardo’s work had been lost and that Barcilon had aimed to remove all previous restorers’ handiwork regardless of whether or not original Leonardo paint survived underneath, she had to do massive amounts of repainting during her agonising two decades long restoration (see our post of March 14th 2012).
In Figs. 12 and 14 we see how dramatically differently two professionally linked Italian restorers, working just one generation apart, left the very same principal figure in Leonardo’s “Last Supper”. (What might be expected to survive or emerge from the next two restorations?) Like the 81 years old Cecilia Gimenez, Barcilon exercised artistic licence – albeit to a far lesser degree – during her painterly interventions on Leonardo’s remains. Where the cuff of Christ’s right sleeve had originally hung below and behind the table, for example, she painted it resting upon the table. To Christ, she too gave a new face and expression. The sole commentator to have recognised such continuums between extreme and lesser restoration injuries, the Sunday Telegraph columnist, Alasdair Palmer, wrote: “while the gulf between what modern restorers do and the dreadful hatchet-job done by Cecilia Gimenez is large, it is not always as vast as restorers would like us to believe”. He noted that while Pinin Brambilla Barcilon had done some magnificent work in recreating what she took to be Leonardo’s original picture, “it wasn’t a restoration because most of the paint applied by Leonardo had long ago disappeared”, and he cited an art historian who holds precisely that “The Last Supper is now a first-rate example of Barcilon’s work. It is not a Leonardo”. Palmer further notes that some of the most severe critics of recent restorations are other restorers:
“‘A great deal of restoration is incompetent,’ maintains Bruno Zanardi, professor of the theory and practice of restoration at the University of Urbino, and one of Italy’s most distinguished restorers. ‘Many of those who are let loose on great works of art do not know what they are doing: they have not been properly trained, and do not understand how fragile old pictures are.’”
To French and Italian transgressions many British and American ones might be added. At the National Gallery, London, it has been officially acknowledged that changes are made to pictures “primarily for aesthetic reasons”, and that while these aesthetic changes rest on the judgements of individual restorers whose “different aesthetic decisions” may result in pictures which “look very different”, all such results are considered “equally valid” (see “The New Relativisms and the Death of ‘Authenticity’”). In Figs. 15 and 16 we show a detail of the National Gallery’s Holbein, “The Ambassadors”. During its restoration (which, like that of Michelangelo’s Sistine Capel Ceiling, was a televised and sponsored event) the then head of conservation, Martin Wyld, took the opportunity to improve and, on “experts” advice, to change the surviving design of the Turkish carpet. In doing so, he paid scant regard to the aerial perspective that had previously been found in the picture. Ignoring the shadows that had previously been cast on the carpet, Wyld introduced a crisper, cleaner, flatter, more “on the picture surface”, altogether more abstract, modernist and, therefore, ahistorical version of Holbein’s original depiction.
More egregious were the changes made to Holbein’s anamorphic skull (Figs. 17 and 18). The cleaning exposed many losses of paint on the skull which bewildered the restorers and caused them to introduce – for the first time, to our knowledge – a piece of painted “virtual reality”. As we put it in a letter to the Independent (“Virtual reality art”, 29 January 2000):
“When the National Gallery recently restored Holbein’s The Ambassadors, the famous skull in the foreground was repainted to a new design not according to the laws of perspective by which it had been produced but after a computer-generated distortion of a photograph of an actual skull.
“This bizarre imposition of ‘virtual reality’ on to an old master painting is defended by the gallery on the grounds that ‘modern imaging techniques’ offer ‘more scope for exploring possible reconstructions’ than do the 16th century perspectival conventions by which the artist’s image had originally been generated.
“The difference between the original and the new parts has been concealed from the general public by the restorer’s attempt to integrate the handiwork of his own ‘tentative reconstruction’ with surrounding old paint by painting fake lines of cracking to match the old, actual cracks.”
In Figs. 19 and 20 we see the liberties taken by Wyld’s predecessor, Arthur Lucas, on Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne”. Lucas boasted to art students at the Slade School of Art that “there is more of me than Titian in that sky”. In thrall to new technologies and materials, Lucas took the trustees’ permission to reline the canvas, as authority for ironing the picture on to a double board of compressed paper. Such boards are today found to be unstable and will doubtless serve to licence further “urgent” conservation treatments.
In Figs. 21 and 22 we again show the startling changes made to a painting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington during the course of two restorations. During the first, as seen on the right of Fig. 21, a general weakening of values occurred. The woman’s necklace, for example, was dimished. As seen on the left in Fig. 22 , during a further restoration, part of the necklace disappeared. Rather than paint it back in, the restorer painted out the surviving section, as can be seen on the right.
When specific bits of paintings disappear restorers often claim that they were only additions made by earlier restorers. If such claims sometimes provoke scepticism, in the case of overall losses and degradations restorers usually offer no defences, seemingly hoping that curators, trustees, art critics, scholars and members of the public will be delighted or distracted by brightened colours and lightened tonalities. In Fig. 23, on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, we see both the general lightening and brightening that attends an aggressive cleaning and losses of specific features and pictorially strategic values. Michelangelo had finished off his frescoes with additional glue or size-based painting but because the Vatican’s restorers held this to be either dirt or earlier restorations, it was all removed. Michelangelo had redrawn and remodelled the drapery seen on the left hanging from the figure’s right shoulder. It was washed off. The removal is shown to be an error by the testimony of earlier copies of the ceiling. (Rubens had copied the drapery as it was found before the recent cleaning.) Michelangelo sought to enhance sculptural effects to his painted figures by adding shadows that were seemingly cast by the three dimensional bodies he had depicted with contrasting brightly lit forms and dark, shadowy recesses and nooks. The latter, too, were lost.
Back at the National Gallery in London, we see in Fig. 24 similarly catastrophic general losses (in the course of another single restoration) of tonal gradations and modelling. In the case of the horse’s right nostril, we see the loss of the very aperture which formerly had carried air to the creature’s lungs. Alasdair Palmer points out that a comparison of the National Gallery picture with its sister panel in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence is shocking to behold. It is the more unforgivable because the National Gallery restoration was prompted by an earlier one of the Florence picture that had not flattened and weakened the horses.
The National Gallery’s great Velazquez, “The Rokeby Venus”, suffered dreadful injuries in 1914 at the hands of a suffragette (Fig. 25). That damage was as nothing when compared with subsequent injuries inflicted by restorers who here too (Fig. 26) were blind to artists’ manipulation of space; creation of atmosphere; rendering of form through calibrated tonal gradations. Before the gallery’s restorers had done their Cecilia Gimenez-esque worst, there existed a parity of brilliance in the two figures, with both displaying the seeming self-illumination of divinities. What sense of that miraculous evocation survives today? Little wonder that the previous owner of the picture made a scene at the National Gallery on sight of its “restoration” and protested that, had he known how it would be treated, he would never have sold it. His grievous personal loss-through-restoration was of a single picture. What price the world’s continuing collective losses at the hands of restorers?
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Reviews: Taking Renoir, Sterling and Francine Clark to the Cleaners
The heart-breaking task of compiling evidence of the consequences of multiple restorations on Renoir’s “Baigneuse” shown here on July 11 raised the spectre of such having occurred throughout the artist’s oeuvre. Does Renoir remain today the artist that he was originally? Are scholars indifferent to restoration changes and therefore presenting adulterations as if still original and pristine states? To help answer these questions, we consider the record of The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, an institute with high scholarly aspirations that was generously founded on a passionate and well informed love of art.
A large group of the Clark Institute’s Renoirs is on show at the Royal Academy’s “From Paris a Taste for Impressionism” exhibition. In the catalogue the institute’s director, Michael Conforti, boasts that “the Clark is where ideas happen.” In 2003 he declared: “To us at the Clark the quality of the ideas that emanate from the study of a work of art is as important as the quality of the object itself.” An idea yet to happen is that scholars, recognising the need to protect the inherent qualities that creative works of art bring to the party, should attend to the irreversible changes that restorers make. Certainly, some such corrective is overdue to commonly held uncritical assumptions that in whatever condition a picture might be found today, it will be good and perfectly sufficient for any scholarly purpose.
Between 1916 and 1951 Sterling Clark, an intriguing and attractive figure in the grip of a declared passion for Renoir, collected thirty-eight of the artist’s pictures. Since Clark’s death in 1956, five of these have been sold off and many have been restored. The Royal Academy is one of countless stops for the Clark’s currently peripatetic pictures as this intellectually self-regarding institution expands and “renovates”. Although the Academy show’s catalogue offers no evaluation of the present condition of the collection, it contains two fine essays – “Sterling Clark as a Collector”, by James Ganz, and “Refined Domesticity: Sterling Clark’s Aesthetic legacy” by Richard R. Brettell – which might profitably inform such a discussion. Unfortunately, the catalogue taken as a whole and together with two preceding and related exhibition catalogues, “A Passion for Renoir”, 1996/7 at the Clark Institute (Fig. 11), and “Renoir at the Theatre”, 2008 at the Courtauld Gallery (Fig. 12), implicitly presents today’s states of Renoir’s pictures as if they have remained original and authentic.
Brettell shows Clark to have been one of a sizable group of American collector/enthusiasts who pushed Renoir’s prices to record highs in the early twentieth century when the supply of pukka old masters was dwindling (and the modern wheeze of upgrading school works was not yet in full flood). Ganz shows that Clark’s collection comprised a cross-section of a decisively selective part of Renoir’s oeuvre. Considering Renoir to be one of the greatest painters ever, Clark nonetheless abhorred his numerous late nudes (with arms and legs which he likened to “inflated bladders”). Clark felt that the artist’s best painting had been done early, and thirty-one of his thirty-eight Renoirs were painted before 1885, with six from 1881, which year he judged the artist’s finest hour. This discerning and focussed selection gives the Clark collection invaluable force of testimony and the Royal Academy is now showing twenty-one of the institute’s remaining thirty-three Renoirs, but there are further reasons for attending to the present state of Clark’s Renoirs.
Although Ganz, formerly of the Clark institute, makes no mention of the pictures’ conditions today he variously discloses that Clark held that picture restorations do more harm than good; that he viewed art historians with disdain; that he learnt early not to depend on “experts” for guidance; and, that on being bitten by bad professional advice, he had resolved to become his own expert:
“In 1913 Clark bought Portrait of a Lady by Domenico Ghirlandaio and Walking Horse, a bronze by Giambologna. Both purchases were facilitated by the American sculptor George Gray Barnard, who had been a friend of Clark’s father. After being assured that the Ghirlandaio had not been retouched, and a copy of the Walking Horse was a unique cast, Clark subsequently found that both of these claims were false. On a trip to Italy in the summer of 1913 he discovered a postcard of the Ghirlandaio in an altered state, and a copy of the Walking Horse in the Bargello in Florence…”
Clark’s admiration for Renoir is shown to have beeen singular. He had considered Renoir without equal among old masters as a colourist and unsurpassed as a painter, that is, as an applier of paint to canvas. He had granted artists like Leonardo, Ingres, Degas, and Bouguereau to have been Renoir’s superiors in terms only of their “suave line”. He complained of English portraits “overcleaned by Duveen” at the Frick Collection. Above all, Clark’s will of 1946 is cited to show that he had expressly prohibited any restoration of his own to-be bequeathed pictures:
“It having been my object in making said collection to acquire only works of the best quality of the artists represented, which were not damaged or distorted by the works of restorers, it is my wish and desire and I request that the said trustees…permanently maintain in said gallery all works of art bequeathed hereunder in the condition in which they shall be at my death without any so-called restoration, cleaning or other work thereon, except in the case of damage from unforeseen causes, and that none of them be sold, exchanged or otherwise disposed of…”
So, we now know that Clark’s Renoirs had been carefully selected on both artistic criteria and excellence of physical condition. That the trustees subsequently disposed of five of these Renoirs is acknowledged but not explained – had they legally overturned the bequest’s conditions or simply ignored them? Fortunately, their writ does not run to undoing historical visual evidence, and Ganz is to be applauded for reproducing the two-page Life magazine photo-spread from 1956, and thereby giving today’s viewers a glimpse of the state of some thirty untouched-by-Clark (and possibly never previously touched) Renoirs at that historic juncture. Although the catalogue reproduction is small, it is sufficient, when viewed within the exhibition, to show that were Clark’s Renoirs to be so-assembled once more, some at least, would not be the same pictures. (See Figs. 7, 8, 9 and 10.)
With photographic records, when due allowances are made for technical variations and vagaries of reproduction methods, a given photograph affords testimony on the dispositions of tones or hues within a given work at a particular moment under a particular light. With modern artists, where first photographs frequently pre-date first restorations, it is striking that similar patterns of weakening recur in the historic photographic record. There is a simple, elegant proof that such changes pinpoint injuries: it would not be possible today to photograph works in a manner that might replicate their earlier appearances. How might the face seen at Fig. 23, for example, now be photographed so as to show the qualities formerly recorded in Fig. 22? Often the weakening is of a general overall “washing-out”, “scrubbing-away”, “Brillo-padding” character. Often, it is seen in local disruptions of original values and relationships. Often, both types occur together. Often one can witness an after-image halo effect where original material has been removed – in Renoir, hair would seem to be especially prey to such injuries (see Fig. 4).
In assembling the pictorial evidence opposite, we were horrified by a realisation that within the general restoration mayhem, a systematic undoing of a rare but distinctive and precious Renoir type of female face has taken place on two major Renoir paintings, both of which, thanks to the Clark exhibition, are found presently in London. These are his 1880 “A Box at the Theater (At the Concert)”, which is said in the current Royal Academy catalogue to be “The last and arguably most ambitious of Renoir’s depictions of elegantly dressed figures seated in theatre boxes”, (see Figs. 4, 11 and 15 to 20), and his earlier 1874 “La Loge (The Theatre Box)”, which was described in the 2008 Courtauld Gallery catalogue as “one of the iconic paintings of Impressionism and a major highlight of the Courtauld Gallery” (see Figs. 1, 2, 3, 12 and 21 to 24). If the appraisals are sound enough, the surrounding explications on these two great works are artistically inadequate.
To take the Clark’s “A Box at the Theater” first: in the 2012 Royal Academy catalogue entry it is said variously that the picture is: “marked by warm colours and rich brushwork”; that “the woman on the left, resplendent in a full length evening gown, looks directly at the viewer”; that the woman and her younger companion “seem lost in reverie”. The scene is said to be situated in a theatre (even though when first exhibited in 1882 it was under the title “Une loge à l’Opéra”): “the background details suggest a theatre rather than the recently opened Palais Garnier”, and “Without the dark red curtain and the fluted pilaster, it would be difficult to locate this scene in a theatre at all.”
Needless to say, this is a reading of the picture as it is today. There is acknowledgement that radical changes had been made by Renoir during the execution of the picture but no acknowledgement of the fact that the architectural features said to locate the scene in a theatre or an opera house have been almost washed away – see Figs. 15 and 16. It is said that the picture had originally been commissioned as a portrait of the daughters of a French Under-Secretary of State for Fine Arts who had subsequently rejected it. It is said that Renoir had then reworked the picture, generalising the sitter’s features, and at some stage had painted out a male figure in the background. Specifically, it is acknowledged that Renoir had “also altered certain facial features and changed the hairstyle of the woman on the left”. It is said that when Clark bought the picture in 1928 he greatly admired it and said “the woman is lovely, the colouring, facture and composition great”.
In the earlier 1996 Clark catalogue (Fig. 11), in an entry under the twin headings “Images of Women” and “Society Portraiture” (the latter sub-heading preceding “Bourgeois Pastimes”), it is said that the subjects were not the daughters but the wife and daughter of the Under-Secretary; that the “expensive evening dress of the woman and the plush red interior of the box suggest Charles Garnier’s opulent Opéra”; that far from looking directly at the viewer, the woman’s “glassy, dreamy expression – her mouth forms a slight smile and her eyes look off into the distance” suggests that “she is completely unaware of someone else in her immediate vicinity”. For the author of this entry (Karyn Esielonis) the woman’s “passivity enables the viewer to look at her without interruption and reinforces period conventions that cast the woman as someone to be looked at rather than someone who actively looks” and who, in fact, cooperates with her own bondage by “sinking back into the plush sensuously red material of the loge, so that she may be perused”. While the girl on the right “turns demurely away”, it is expected that, on reaching sexual maturity her behaviour will change accordingly, and, she too, “will become the object of the gaze”. The late John House spoke specifically of “the engendered gaze”.
The Clark picture was included in the 2008 Courtauld show and the catalogue (Fig. 12) provided a bridge between the Theatre/Opera divergence. That is, when the picture was acquired by Renoir’s dealer Durand-Ruel in 1880 it was registered with the title “Une loge au théâtre”, but when exhibited two years later it was titled “Une loge à l’Opéra”. The Courtauld catalogue entry includes an “X-radiograph” and an infra-red photograph, thereby rendering the features of the man who had been painted out in the upper right corner more discernable. The description of the painting itself is as slack as that in the 2012 catalogue and is conducted in terms relative to related pictures: “The canvas is far more muted and conventional in tonality than Café-concert (Au Théâtre)…”
However, if we look at older reproductions of this painting (in our case from 1921 onwards when it was just forty-one years old) we find that the picture, as bought by Clark in 1928, was then different from its present state; different in its general dispositions (see Figs. 15 and 16); and, different in its particulars (see Figs. 17 to 20). As mentioned, the pilaster on the left of the picture has now been almost washed away. Much of the former shading around the woman’s eyes has been lost, with the result that the pupils and irises of the eyes increasing resemble a pair of olives set adrift on a plate (Figs. 4 and 20). Her hair has been lightened. The expression on her mouth has changed. The end of the glove on her right arm has been redrawn. Crucially, her gaze no longer fixes on the viewer as it may have done in 1925 (Fig. 15).
Like the Clark picture, the Courtauld “La Loge” may have been (?) unrestored when bought in 1925 by Samuel Courtauld who cherished “its subtle charm of surfaces” and placed in the music room of his house in Portman Square. Like Clark, Courtauld passed his collection to the public domain upon his death in 1948. The head of the Courtauld Gallery, Ernst Vegelin van Claerbergen, speaks in the 2008 catalogue of the picture having been “lent to exhibitions internationally, and reproduced countless times in numerous media”, adding “And yet, in some respects, fame has also veiled this picture, its familiarity and its reductive status as an archetype of Impressionism perhaps acting against close scrutiny.” While ever closer scrutiny is to be welcomed, an examination of the physical and artistic reduction of the painting itself would seem more urgent than one of the soundness or otherwise of its virtual perception in the world at large. Perceptions and mis-perceptions can be altered. Altered pictures are forever – restoration is a one-way street of compounding injuries.
No mention of the Courtauld Gallery’s “La Loge” is made in the 2012 catalogue entry on “A Box at the Theater” but in the 1996 Clark catalogue “A Passion for Renoir” it is said that the picture features “a lavishly dressed woman, her face heavily made up…” Critics at the time of the first showing had questioned the morals of the woman as one who unabashedly presented herself for public view aiming to “attract people with her wicked charms and [the] sensuous luxury of her clothes”. In the 2008 Courtauld catalogue, John House, too, noted that some critics of the day had taken the sitter not as a woman of high fashion but as “an iconic figure from the demi-monde”. Seemingly dismissing such readings, House, added “In reality Renoir produced the painting in his studio using his brother Edmond and Nini, a model from Montmarte nicknamed ‘gueule de raie’ or ‘fish-face’ as the sitters.” As, indeed, he had, but then, as so often, the critics of the day were on to something that later champions have missed: by whatever means it had been produced, this truly was a work of dangerously seductive power.
For his part, House describes the picture as it now is, as seen here at Figs. 2, 3, 22 and 24, and not as was, as today glimpsed at Figs. 1, 21 and 23. He notes that “the viewer’s eye fluctuates between bodice and face in search for the principal focus of the composition” – when in the recorded earlier states of the picture, he could have been in no such doubt. The face had not only been more decisively modelled (Figs. 1 and 23) but the head had been separated from the bosom and bodice with both more pronounced shading and a more glittering “choker” of jewels at the upper neck (Figs. 21 and 22). While alerting us to the realities of artists’ working practices, House, by also confining himself to the picture as it now is, obliges himself not to comprehend the full extent of Renoir’s achievement. What had once been nothing less than a supreme artistic invention of female type, a face of awesome charismatic and enigmatic force that, in truth, had constitued a Mona Lisa for modern times, is now physically reduced and artistically traduced by restorers who have borne down on Renoir’s final paint film with their swabs and solvents and Lord-knows what else, leaving a picture that now generates only art historical short-change – a decorous patter of sociology and applied psychology.
…A picture that nowadays serves as grist to endlessly recycled analysis of tyrannical “engendered gazing”, posh frocks and past high bourgeois social mores – interesting enough, in their own way, but ultimately distractions all, as if to divert our gaze away from recollections of what once was. Once, it was beyond question that this woman’s face was the compositional and psychological epicentre of the picture, her enchanting bejewelled and beflowered bosom notwithstanding. Each of the face’s individual features commanded/rewarded intense scrutiny. Her mouth, sensuous, luscious, self-aware in its precisely composed invitation, had once – and in some degree until recently (see Fig. 1) – been more than a match for that seen in the National Gallery’s Rubens “Le Chapeau de Paille” (Fig. 31). The gaze of her eyes, once dark, mesmerisingly deep, supremely confident (see Fig. 23) was that of no ordinary, specific, prosaic woman; belonged to no portrait of a hired-in fish-faced model. Nor was this image mere social stereotype in some moralising, agit-prop genre tale. This was nothing less than the transcending realisation of an eternal female possibility, of one supremely aware of her own sexual magnetism and accompanying powers; of one more than content to abandon her male companion to his own distractions. An icon indeed.
What a tragedy, therefore, that this Carmen, falling among restorers, should have been reduced to Micaëla, reduced to her own still brilliantly sketched but now merely sweet, almost ingénue-like preparatory stages, losing the flash of her nostrils (- in this, too, rivalling Rubens) and the luxuriance of her sensuously elaborated coiffure. In short, being made more ordinary by ordinary people wreaking their terrible uncomprehending revenge on an extraordinary talent through their appropriation of a masterpiece crafted by one who had hymned his own private especial celebration, in paint, on a surface.
Sterling Clark died on 29 December 1956 shortly after the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute which he established and endowed and to which he had left his fabulous collection (not just of paintings but of drawings, books, prints, silver and porcelain) had opened. He might have expected that the institute’s trustees would honour the terms of his bequest and respect his wish that the unrestored works he had acquired with such assiduous ground work (and with great wealth, of course) should remain unsullied. James Ganz has reported that on Clark’s death, his widow Francine (whose important role in assembling the collection had been honoured by the inclusion of her name in the title of the institute), continued to sit on the board, “asserting her opinions on the arrangements of paintings in the galleries, looking to maintain her husband’s wishes”. Francine Clark died in April 1960.
Within three years of Francine’s death the first of what were to be two radical and utterly deranging restorations of Turner’s “Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water” was under way at the hands of a then “leading restorer”, William Suhr (see Figs 32-4). We were first alerted to the Clark Institute’s radical restorations in 2003 by the painter Edmund Rucinski who had known the collection intimately up until 1963 and who had spotted the further and compounding transformation of the Turner. On this second bite at the restoration cherry, the restorers claimed that the painting had been falling apart and that, besides, seventy-five per cent of it consisted of earlier restorers’ repaint, applied to “disguise the evidence of some unknown earlier trauma”. Only by removing most of the present paint, they insisted, could “a full understanding of what lay beneath” be achieved. That treatment, authorised by the trustees, was claimed by the interested parties to have been a “resurrection” which had created an “effectively a new picture”. In this new picture, the last traces of the second, nearer steamboat that Turner had painted battling its way towards harbour in a storm, disappeared under the waves, its filthy coal-produced smoke being converted into a water spout or perhaps steam jet (Fig. 34). Not only was this twice-over undone and redone wreck then deemed a new picture but it was also judged to be miraculously cured of all structural ailments and free to be dispatched across the Atlantic to go on tour to Manchester and Glasgow.
At the time of the UK trip, the Tate Gallery issued a press release claiming that the picture comprised “one of the stars of the show…[having] recently undergone major conservation”. Credulous British critics lapped up and regurgitated the claims. And, by coincidence, they have done so again as this Turner returned to the UK to do service at a Tate Liverpool show where works by Turner and Monet have been flatteringly permed with Cy Twombly’s solipsistic scribbles and dribbles.
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L. O. L. It’s Peeping Tom Time at the National Gallery!
A little over a decade ago we were requested to move away from Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne” by a member of the National Gallery’s education department who was about to give a talk. Her narrative thrust on this great canvas (which had been glued by restorers on to a sheet of “Sundeala” board) proved more sociological than artistic or art historical. It had a villain – the original patron – who, the audience learned, had been a rich dirty old man who supplied extravagantly expensive pigments for an ostentatiously sexy depiction of a victim – an abused mythical woman – who would provide literary cover for his private delectation within his own apartment.
If the Gallery had then hit a low with such travestying philistine cant, we now find that in its drive to increase visitor numbers and extend social constituencies, it has jettisoned the very distinction between Art and Life. Pictures acquired at immense expense in the name of the Public Good are no longer treated as self-sufficient imaginatively crafted works that merit reciprocally reflective attention from the viewer but as pretexts for real-life events of a titillating, humanly exploitative and degrading nature.
Thus, in the bureaucratised stew that is the Cultural Olympiad’s London 2012 Festival, the National Gallery has permitted Titian’s great poesies to serve as springboards to three “edgy” artists. In 2001, in a drawing for Jackdaw (see Fig. 4), we had already marked one of this triumverate, Mark Wallinger, as a clown ripe for elevation to the National Gallery Pantheon, and today, with few honourable exceptions, the newspaper art critics have duly fawned over his efforts:
We are so cast only if we choose to play the chump-role that is offered as a legitimately “performative” (to use Sir Nicholas Serota’s term-of-the-moment) contribution to art. We do not have to do so. We do not have to be complicit with museum educators’ perverse cultural de-constructions. Rather, we might ask them why they do not consider this particular use of real people – women hired-in for the duration – to be a form of “sexploitation”. We might also ask them, as public educators, to explain the connection that they believe Wallinger’s stunt has with Ovid’s stories and Titian’s depictions of them. Even if Wallinger cannot see that Acteon was the very opposite of a voyeur – a man who had had the great misfortune accidentally to intrude upon a bathing goddess – might we not ask why no one at the National Gallery felt able to disabuse him.
Our examination of the fate of more than twenty Clark Art Institute Renoirs now showing at the Royal Academy will follow in the next post.
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Review: Stone-washed Renoirs and the Shock of the Undone
We knew at a glance that something was amiss. On June 16th, a newspaper photograph trailed an imminent auction sale of Renoir’s “Baigneuse” of 1888. Even on the evidence of that single de-saturated newsprint reproduction (right, Fig. 1) it seemed clear that the privately owned masterpiece had gone through the picture restoration wash cycle a time (or two) too often. A comparison of Christie’s pre-sale zoom-able online photograph with historic photographs of the painting further suggested that picture conservation’s would-be beauticians had been at work with swab and solvent: Renoir’s bather had been left (Fig. 2) a paler sugar-smooth pictorially and plastically enfeebled version of her original self. (For the picture’s appearance and condition in 1944, see Figs. 7 and 9.)
Just as museum curators who organise splashy temporary exhibitions rarely broadcast the “conservation” injuries borne by works loaned from sister institutions, so auction houses, which of necessity must act primarily as agents for owners, can seem no less reticent on this fraught subject. In practice, we find that in of both of these art spheres, the “now” is often implicitly presented as the “originally-was” and “always-has-been”, thereby thwarting what would be the greatest inducement to halt needless adulterations of unique historically-rooted artefacts: a full public disclosure of “conservation” treatments and frank art-critical discussion of their material and artistic consequences. By coincidence, recent museum and saleroom activities have brought to London a slew of little-seen examples of Renoir’s oeuvre. As cases in point of Renoir’s vulnerability, we examine here treatments of his “Baigneuse” of 1888 and the Washington National Gallery’s “The Dancer” of 1874.
Renoir’s “Baigneuse” was given star billing (on a £12/18m estimate) at Christie’s June 20th Impressionist/Modern sale, for the catalogue of which it provided the cover illustration (Fig. 2). While much was made in the eight pages long catalogue entry of an impeccable and unbroken provenance through ten successive owners, not a word was said about any restorations of the painting, and although many early photographs are identified in the picture’s literature, none is reproduced. It is disclosed that this Renoir is to be included in the forthcoming “catalogue critique” of the artist’s work being prepared by the Wildenstein Institute from the Archives of François Daulte, Durand-Ruel, Venturi, Vollard and Wildenstein. (Perhaps the present condition of the picture will be discussed in that publication?)
On the night of the sale, an announcement that the picture had been withdrawn drew gasps of surprise. Artinfo reported that the vendor had accepted a private offer from an unidentified buyer for an undisclosed sum somewhere within the estimate. Trade and press eyebrows have been raised at such secretive, pre-auction sales and the withdrawal was the more confounding because expectations of a big auction house “event” had been raised by extensive (and quite stunningly fetching) pre-sale press coverage with photographs of the painting enlivened by the seemingly routine inclusion of beautiful young female staff members.
With modern paintings, the starting point for any appraisal should be the earliest known photograph. Old photographs are historic records. Historic records should never be ignored. Old photographs of pictures assembled in homes or exhibition galleries are especially precious and instructive. The photograph of Renoir’s 1905 exhibition at the Grafton Gallery (Fig. 3) testifies not only to the then generally more vivacious relative values within individual works but to the striking variety of pictorial effects and painterly means deployed within Renoir’s oeuvre.
With regard to the photographic testimony of the original appearances of individual pictures, consider first the large, near-central painting in the 1905 Grafton Gallery photograph – Renoir’s “The Dancer”. This picture, now at the National Gallery, Washington, is 138 years old but was then only 31 years old and unrestored. Then, the background was disposed in distinct but linked quadrants (top-left; top-right; bottom right; bottom left). These were not so much naturalistic renderings of an actual space as subservient pictorial devices spotlighting the central bow-tight figure of a child trainee who, through balletic discipline and artistry, had assumed a commanding Velazquez-worthy sideways-on viewer-confronting presence.
To that expressive end Renoir had welded the dramatically contra-directional lower legs into unity by a pronounced dark shadow in the vertical triangular space they bounded. That shadow sprang also from the heel of the (right) weight-supporting foot backwards and upwards in space, thereby throwing the bottom edges of the trailed skirts into relief. This dark zone in the lower-right counterbalanced another in the upper-left, which had in turn emphasised and thrown into relief the front edge of the costume, withdrawing only to leave a lighter, again relieving, tone at the dancer’s dark hair. The progressive loss through restorations of those artful dispositions (as seen in Figs. 4 & 5) and the picture’s general descent towards an inchoate, arbitrary pictorial froth that increasingly resembles the underlying condition seen today in its own infra-red imaging (see Fig. 6), is heart-breaking. Renoir had here been a sculptor before he became a sculptor, playing off forms that asserted his picture plane with others that ran sharply away from or towards it (rather as Michelangelo had famously done in his crucifixion of Haman). Degas, who spoke of Renoir’s “sharpness of tones”, had chided himself for constructing his own drawings of standing dancers from the head down instead of from the feet up. Renoir had here given a masterclass in how to project a standing figure upwards from the floor. These things artists know and appreciate.
Compendious photographic evidence suggests that restorers (frequently working myopically through head-mounted magnifying eyepieces) have consistently confounded dirt or discoloured varnish with the shiftingly elusive dark grounds used by artists to set off light-toned figures. As seen in our post of June 1st, Klimt’s portrait of Serena Lederer (which was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1980) has suffered in just such a manner. In the same post we saw also how Renoir’s deployment of a dark background zone in the upper left quadrant of background and a secondary but counter-balancing dark zone in the lower right quadrant of his “Dance in the City” had also been undone by successive restorers.
By courtesy of the 1905 photograph of the dancer we can now see that by 1944 the picture’s decisive tonal orchestration had already been subverted (see Fig. 3 and caption at Fig. 6). By the time of the picture’s appearance at the 2012 Frick show of Renoir’s full-length portraits (which was reviewed in our post of June 1st), the original dark tones in the lower right quadrant had effectively disappeared, leaving two odd arbitrarily truncated dark attachments to the right heel (Fig. 5). Cumulatively, this painting has suffered needless artistic vandalism of which no one speaks. The fact that graphite underdrawing is now visible on the painting has been mentioned but without any hint of alarm or censure.
With Renoir’s “Baigneuse” of 1888, the earliest photograph in our own records (- donations to ArtWatch of old photographs or postcards are always most gratefully received) is that published in 1944 when the painting was 56 years old, as seen here in greyscale at Fig. 7 (left) and at Fig. 9. Six years later, by 1950, the painting had been radically transformed, as seen at Fig. 7 (right, in greyscale) and Fig. 8 (left, in colour). The differences that emerged between 1944 and 1950 were compounded by further changes between the picture’s 1950 state (seen in colour at Fig. 8, left) and its 2012 state (seen in colour at Fig. 8, right). However many times and by whomever this painting might have been “restored”, it is clear that the resulting interventions have profoundly altered its constructional and pictorial rationales. The total extent of the alterations that occurred between 1944 and 2012 are examined right in greyscale details in Figs. 11-18. The differences between the 1950 and 2012 states are examined in colour details at Figs. 19, 20 and 21.
By 1888 Renoir had visited Algiers and Italy, come to admire Cezanne as well as Delacroix, discovered Italian painting and read Cennino Cennini’s Treatise on Painting. He had just completed an intense series of classically inspired, Ingresque female nudes, culminating in that declared trial for decorative painting, the Philadelphia Museum’s great “Bathers” of 1887, by which date he held the nude to be one of the most “essential forms of art”.
Compared with Fantin-Latour’s palpable but fluidly allegorical figure at Fig. 10, Renoir’s “Baigneuse” has, in its 1944 state, a markedly more stolid, out-of-Courbet corporeality. For all its spirited brushwork and sparkling colour, plastically, it constitutes an essay in composure, stability and parallelism. The torso seemingly rests on its own base of compressed and spreading buttocks and thighs. The thighs, knees and lower legs are held together in a manner more primly archaic (Egyptian) than classical. Movement is confined to the bather’s right hand which dries the left side of the waist. This action has enlivening consequences. The upper torso is pulled round by the right arm and the head is turned leftwards and downwards as if to contemplate the drying action of the towel. The left arm is required to be held aloft to free the left side of the figure, and, flexing at the elbow as the left hand draws across the face, it first echoes the thighs but then curls gracefully, weightlessly away in space.
What, then, explains the differences between the picture’s previous and its present condition? In such cases it is always possible to play the “Sistine Chapel Ceiling Restoration Defence” and claim that in 1944 the then 56 years old picture was very dirty and that the removal of this dirt has liberated the forms and the colours of the painting to a hitherto unsuspected degree. But the pattern of relationships that is visible, even under dirt, should not change character during a cleaning. Rather, it should emerge enhanced, with the lights lighter and the darks darker – and all individual values holding their previous positions. This has not happened – the picture has got progressively lighter with successive cleanings instead of returning to its previously cleaned state. If it really had been left by Renoir in today’s state, how could the previous but now lost artistically constructive values ever have arisen? If left untouched for the next 56 years, would anyone expect the painting to return to its 1944 appearance with the stripes on the towel and the shading of the fingers regaining strength? Would a general shading and enhancement of forms once more helpfully tuck the left hand behind the head? How might dirt have drawn more clearly and repositioned the left shoulder? How might it have more emphatically shaded the right, distant side of the face?
If we consider the difference between the 1950 and 2012 colour plates (shown at Figs. 8, 19, 20 & 21), what might account for the loss of orange coloured modelling in the left cheek, and of individual brushstrokes depicting the hair? Is it possible to claim on the evidence of these photographs that there has been a build-up of dirt on the picture over the last 62 years?
When examining the bather’s face in close-up today, as shown at Fig. 21, can we have any confidence that the paint presently surviving in that section is just as it was when left by Renoir in 1888? What kind of brush or paint might he have used that would have resulted in the present fragmentary, seemingly abraded, scattering of orange paint that lies over the blue background between the hand, the face and the shoulder?
In the next post we examine the conservation fate of more than a score of Renoirs that have been loaned from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts to the Royal Academy. We shall see how Sterling Clark learned the hard way not to trust art experts on matters of condition in paintings when, having been assured that Domenico Ghirlandaio’s “Portrait of a Lady” had never been repainted, he bought it, only to discover, very shortly afterwards, a postcard of the painting showing it in an earlier and quite different state.
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Review: Renoir at the Frick – The Curatorial and Conservational Photographic Blind Spots
The Frick Collection’s recent temporary exhibition “Renoir ~ Impressionism and Full-length Painting” contained ten pictures and took ten years to assemble. It was organised by the deputy director, Colin Bailey, to showcase the The Promenade, the museum’s sole and “somewhat overlooked” Renoir – “overlooked” because Henry Clay Frick’s entrenched prohibition against loans had prevented the picture from travelling to major Renoir shows such as the 1997-78 “Renoir Portraits” exhibition which Bailey had organised for the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, The Art Institute of Chicago and The Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth. If the Promenade could not join the international party then the party might come to the Frick.
For this celebration of a single work nine major pictures were borrowed from seven museums and Bailey, a distinguished scholar of French art, produced a book/catalogue that contains much illuminating material on contemporary costume and fashionable mores. As delightful as the show itself ought to have been, the experience proved dispiriting and alarming. Partly, this was because such temporary compilations of dream combinations always come with downsides and a common glaring omission. In this case, for several months a gallery-full of important Frick pictures were bumped from view as important works from other, also temporarily depleted, museums were put at risk. The Musée d’Orsay, for example, sent both its Dance in the City, which had been transferred from its original canvas and relined (see Figs. 10-13 and below), and its Dance in the Country, across the Atlantic. The National Gallery (London) sent its already travel-damaged The Umbrellas, and did so at a time when it had lent its brittle, fragile, shotgun-blasted, “never-to-travel” Leonardo Cartoon to the Louvre. The Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, lent its fire-damaged Madame Henriot “en travesti” (The Page)…and so forth.
The omission that is common to all borrowed compilations was the failure – perhaps for reasons of institutional politesse – to take the opportunity to assess the relative physical conditions of the variously treated and restored cross-section of pictures from within an oeuvre or, in this case, from a specific moment within an oeuvre – “the decade of Impressionism”. This commonly encountered lacuna was the more apparent because Bailey himself discusses conservation matters rather more than most. He does so, however, as a seemingly grateful recipient/beneficiary of museum restoration departments’ technical largesse and their routinely delivered “discoveries”. With his prefatory expression of deep gratitude to an international slew of conservators for “their participation in undertaking technical examination on the paintings in their charge and for allowing me to publish their findings in this catalogue” we knew precisely what critical appraisals not to expect.
Strictly speaking it would not be necessary to call for comparative assessments on such occasions if museums were all, as a matter of course, completely frank about the restoration-injured conditions of individual works. By way of an example of what might be discussed at a time when recollection of the show is still fresh and when armed with Bailey’s book/catalogue, which is as intensively researched and handsomely illustrated as might ever be expected, we consider here the technical history, in so far as it has been disclosed, of just one of the nine loaned pictures – Renoir’s beautiful invention of arrested intimacy-in-movement, his Dance in the City.
The obvious starting point for any appraisal of a picture’s successive states should be the earliest photographic record of the work. With Renoir we enjoy an immense if not comprehensive photographic record. We even have film footage of him painting and sculpting. We have contemporary or near-contemporary photographs that show his paintings in the context of close proximity to other paintings and in a common light (Fig. 1). When the testimony of early photographs differs markedly from presently photographed states (as so often is the case with modern masters – see Figs. 3-7), then, self-evidently, there is an issue crying to be addressed.
When, for example, we compare the very different states of Renoir’s Dance in the City, as seen in Figs. 3 & 4, despite making allowances for photographic variations (such as the great discrepancies of size between the earlier and later images) and being mindful of Bailey’s own thanks to the photographer Michael Bodycomb for having “improved the quality of almost every image”), it is clear that the painting today is not the work that it once was; that its values and relationships have changed. Consider the floor on which the dancers perform: then, it was more varied in its tones; today it is more equal. Then, the floor to the right of the ball gown was darker than the floor to the left of the couple. That darkness served to emphasize the sweeping profile at the back of the trailing gown. Reading downwards from the waist, the shape of two convex masses of material formerly made a leisurely elegant descent towards the train. Today, that “materially” expressive clarity of design in the lower of the two draped forms has been quite disrupted, if not lost, as the now lighter tone of the floor merges with the now diminished shaded tints of the gown (see Figs. 3, 4 & 11).
For all of Bailey’s admirably close (and expertly advised) attentiveness to the dress-making “mechanics” of the gown – “…The skirt is draped in puffed folds (en bouillonée) with a tier of drapery in the front and two pleated flounces at the bottom. The long train is is draped and pleated to form poufs in the back, and a petticoat can be glimpsed beneath it” – he misses the weakened and possibly redrawn profile. Bailey well describes Renoir’s preoccupation with costume. As the son of a tailor and a seamstress, how could that artist have been unaware of or indifferent to the expressive “cut” and sweep of a costume on a swirling, waltzing figure? Previously, the costume of the male dancer was more various in its tones. Today it reads as a uniform black appendage to the female dancer. Previously there had been no hint of the present overly-assertive, sharpened and darkened treatment of the coat tails which pictorially are now as disruptively emphatic as the head of a claw hammer.
For Bailey, the now lighter toned, more equal floor is “immaculate”. To a charlady that might well seem gratifyingly the case, but Renoir, as Bailey acknowledges, fretted greatly about establishing integrated relationships of figures and backgrounds. As Renoir himself put it: “I just struggle with my figures until they are a harmonious unity with their landscape background, and I want people to feel that neither the setting nor the figures are dull and lifeless.” (“Renoir by Renoir”, N.Y., 1990, p. 50). “Harmonious” sometimes seems to be an elusive concept to non-artists. It is not synonymous with “more-alike”. Rather, it describes the uniting through an artistically forged equilibrium of otherwise potentially disparate, disjunctive elements. We constantly see in artists’ preliminary, intimate sketches how their very first thoughts attempt to anticipate and resolve the requirements of such pictorial equilibriums – see Figs. 8 & 9.
Rendering Renoir’s dance floor more homogeneous has had a spatially flattening and pictorially deadening effect. Rendering it both generally lighter and more equal has contributed to the unfortunate effect of detaching the couple from their swirling space and leaving them as isolated and self-contained as a pressed flower in a book. Indication of the painter’s pictorially melding preoccupation is unmissable in the small oil sketch at Fig. 9 that Renoir made for another of his dance paintings. Compared with the earlier state of Dance in the City, the present one resembles an artificially sharpened photograph.
With apparent injuries we must always look for causes and look for them behind as much as within official accounts. As mentioned, and as Bailey euphemises, this picture has “had a complicated structural history”. That is, it has been both transferred and relined. Both operations are highly dangerous. When the paint film was detached from (its presumably original) canvas, the restorers took the opportunity to photograph the painting from the back of the paint, capturing the image in reverse. This image is excitedly presented as having afforded “a rare glimpse into Renoir’s initial preparations…we can see the lines demarcating the back and the train of the womans dress” (but see comments and photograph at Fig. 10). In the same vein, an X-radiograph “shows how enegetically Renoir laid out both his figures and the background elements”. Bailey discusses an infrared reflectogram (Fig. 11) and acknowledges that these “technical” images were made by the Laboratoire du Louvre, C2RMF. Our colleague in ARIPA, Michel Favre Felix, advises that a certain number of paintings coming from the Louvre or from “l’Orangerie”, were “more or less restored” in 1986 on entering the Musée d’Orsay. Bailey confirms that the picture entered the Louvre in 1979 and was transferred to the the Musée d’Orsay in 1986 but offers no details on any restorations of the picture. The pronounced differences in the picture that are evident in Figs. 4 and 13 would however suggest that a restoration took place at some point after 1986.
Needless to say, Renoir painted from the bottom up with overlaid patches of paint and his final, most considered statements therefore formed the upper visible surface of the original paint film. That original, considered and final surface (as was best seen and recorded in the earlier photograph at fig. 2), is no longer to be found in current photographs or in the flesh. Whatever interest penetrative imaging might have, it is secondary in importance to the actual appearance of pictures to the human eye. The current escalating vogue for “technical” imaging that probes beneath the surfaces of pictures serves to divert attention from destructive restoration actions on pictures’ critically important upper surfaces. If the present international museums merry-go-round of borrowings makes the need to address the condition of paintings impolitic, then that is a further compelling reason for curtailing it.
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Review: Deadly Docents, Dirty Varnish and a Big Educational Push at the Frick
The hardest thing to do in today’s internationalised world of museum administration is to stand still. A trip to New York always compels a visit to the delightful time-frozen art palace that is the Frick Collection but it would seem that, even there, maintaining the status quo there has proved unendurable. Madcap schemes to build new galleries for new exhibitions under the Frick’s garden have been drawn up. It is possible that the new director, Ian Wardropper (former chairman of the department of European sculpture and decorative arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), has dampened ardour for the kind of curatorial and physical “bolt-ons” that have skewed similarly bequeathed jewels like the Wallace Collection in London and the Phillips Collection in Washington (where today the historic works and their period architectural setting have been swamped and diminished by curatorial and architectural expansionism; where today “Special exhibitions are a signature element …offering new perspectives on the work of contemporary and modern artists.”) The Frick’s director does however seem minded to expand the audio tours and “other educational programs” and a book prominently displayed in the Frick’s shop (see right) serves as explicit manifesto for Education’s bid to interpose itself noisily at the very centre of museums between art and its visitors. As the painter Gareth Hawker describes below, something vital and of the essence is threatened by the prospect. And, as the painter James Keul discovered on a recent visit, something similar is already up and running at the Getty:
“The docent in the Rembrandt room of the East Pavilion upper level, which covers art from 1600-1800, was speaking to a tour group of about 20 people, mostly middle-aged, and asking what observations people had made on the small painting of the Abduction of Europa. One member of the group asked why all of the paintings appear so dark. The docent answered that varnish and oils applied over the years had darkened, leaving many works darker than they were intended to be. Presumably, this was meant to plant a seed in peoples’ minds that all dark paintings are the result of a darkened varnish rather than an intended effect that was used, in this case by a Baroque artist, to provide contrast and thus bathe a picture in a divine light…”
Gareth Hawker writes:
Visitors who plan a quiet hour or so contemplating works of Art in an American museum risk being accosted by guides called “Docents” who intend to deepen their museum experience. Docents, according to Rika Burnham and Elliott Kai-Kee, the authors of “Teaching in the Art Museum: Interpretation as Experience” (2011, Getty Publications – see Figs. 1 – 4), seek to enable the visitor to “make meanings”. The book’s purpose “is to explain making meanings – to open the world by means of art”. Although many readers might be baffled by such sentences as: “metacognition is a byproduct of practice and it facilitates profound experience”, Burnham and Kai-Kee’s respective positions as Head of Education at the Frick Collection, New York, and Education Specialist at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, requires that their campaign to help docents influence a whole culture by shaping the public’s attitude to works of Art be examined.
Docents are amateur enthusiasts, who have been trained to a high level – though not to degree standard – in both teaching and art history. They come from all sorts of backgrounds, and are of all ages. They probably think of themselves as more or less ordinary people who enjoy appreciating art and wish to help others to do so.
The position of the Docent was created in 1907 in response to a perceived need. Visitors to art galleries wished for a guidance in appreciating works of art which was deeper than that being provided by art-historical lectures. Docents were trained and appointed to meet this need by providing an education in aesthetic pleasure. Nearly a century later, there is no longer agreement about what might be meant by “an education in aesthetic pleasure”. So this book appears at an opportune moment, just when museum educators are seeking to clarify their roles.
In order to help redefine their objectives, Burnham and Kai-Kee refer to the work of the educationalist John Dewey who wrote in his classic 1934, Art as Experience, that “The task is to restore confidence between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings, and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience.” Dewey had identified an ideal response to a work of art. The visitor would begin by gaining an “experience” (that is, a sense of unity). A teacher might help the visitor in this, by stimulating and guiding his thoughts, but without ever imposing any view or judgement. In this way, “guided interpretation” might help the visitor to “make meaning” – to recognise relationships in many aspects of life and art. At its highest this process can generate a sense of over-arching interconnectedness which Dewey called a “culmination”.
In one exercise, students working in a group are encouraged to offer up any ideas and reflections which come to mind in reaction to a painting. These “thought showers” sound as if they could be open and productive, but, if a student asks an awkward question, the process seems to go into shut-down, as the following account (p. 71) may illustrate:
“The picture (the Frick Saint Francis by Giovanni Bellini) is beginning to cast its habitual spell. Suddenly, without warning, in a slightly confrontational tone, one man in the group asks, ‘What’s the difference between a work of art and a mere illustration? This might be just an illustration.’ [See Fig. 2] The question raises larger philosophical issues that are more difficult than he probably realizes and than I can accommodate in the context of a gallery program. I urge him to be patient. Perhaps the experience of the painting may begin to resolve the question, at least for him.”
The docent hopes that the student’s experience of the painting might begin to resolve his question – ignoring that fact that it was his experience which had prompted the question in the first place. Perhaps only certain types of experience are acceptable. (Dewey made a distinction between “experience” and “an experience”). The docent also suggests that the student’s question might be resolved, “for him”, as if his question were personal; as if he were troubled by a mental hang-up; and as if she were his counsellor. But his question was not personal. It was a general question about how works of art may be classified. An answer which was good only “for him” would not have addressed the issue – if indeed such an answer could have any meaning at all.
So, to summarise, the teacher has judged that her student has had the wrong kind of experience, but will not explain why; she judges that he is probably ignorant of issues which are connected with his question but she will not tell him what they are. This begins to look less like an application of Dewey’s theories and more like a power-struggle in which the docent issues a put-down and asserts her superiority.
As so often throughout the book, while the theories seem perfectly innocuous, even illuminating, it is the way in which they are put into practice which gives cause for concern. The authors seem to share a general squeamishness about talking about artistic quality. This is a mindset which is just as prevalent in Museum education in the UK as in the USA. While the authors appear to accept Dewey’s observation that works of aesthetic merit may be found at all levels of human endeavour, not solely in High Art, they apparently interpret this to mean that one must not point out the difference between good and bad.
The authors do mention the importance of looking and seeing, but by these terms they seem to mean finding and telling stories, rather than observing shapes and colours. Works are treated as objects to be read, like books, with stories to be discovered and assimilated. Looking at a painting for its artistic qualities is considered only as a small part of a student’s involvement, not of central importance. (Whistler’s Ten O’ Clock lecture, with its concentration on qualities such as colour, tone and shape, would form a stark contrast to the narrative approach outlined here.)
For the authors, talking is an essential part of the process of experiencing a work of visual art. The authors would like to see the docent become increasingly prominent in museums. They wish to see teaching develop in such a way that, “galleries may be defined as places where dialogues take place around works of art” (p. 151). This means that galleries would no longer be defined as places where one goes to look at paintings. They would no longer be quiet. The authors envisage galleries “filled with the hum of conversation […as] educators move from the periphery to the center.” But this move may have harmful consequences. If visitors learn to think of the appreciation of works of art as a series of “experiences”, with little regard to artistic quality, their eyes will be closed to many fundamental aspects of the art of painting. Such visitors are unlikely to observe that some pictures are better than others. They will not notice when quality has been reduced over time: when paintings have been degraded by insensitive restoration “treatments”. Their non-judgemental, non-critical stance will make them easy prey for apologists who promote restorations with appeals to crude sensation such as, “now we can see what was underneath that dark paint!” or, “now look at how bright that blue has become!”
Works of art will be relegated to the status of tools which enable the visitor “to open the world by means of art.” Defining the function of art in this way is simplistic. Art can have many meanings or none at all, yet we can still recognise that it is “right” – if our minds are quiet. Yet the museum of the future which the authors envisage is hectic and noisy.
“Responsible for the continuing translations of meaning that occur in the new museum, the educators who teach are the most accomplished members of the education department, best qualified to shape and animate museum programs. They lead the department, define its philosophy and mission, and overturn the historical definition of teaching as a peripheral, volunteer, or entry-level activity.”
If, by “translations of meaning” the authors mean anything like the “guided interpretation” we have seen in the verbatim accounts of their teaching sessions, we know that it will involve subtly pressurising the visitor to conform to their view of art, “shaping and animating” his “experience”.
A quiet hour contemplating beautiful paintings looks likely to become ever more elusive if the authors get their way.
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Rocking the Louvre: the Bergeon Langle Disclosures on a Leonardo da Vinci restoration
ArtWatch has been haunted for two decades by a nearly-but-not-made restoration disclosure. In the 1993 Beck/Daley account of the Nippon TV sponsored Sistine Chapel restoration (Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business and the Scandal), we reported that in the late 1980s Leonetto Tintori, the restorer of Masaccio’s “Trinity” in the Santa Maria Novella, Florence, and a member of the international committee that investigated the controversial cleaning, had “urged the Sistine team privately to preserve what he termed ‘Michelangelo’s auxiliary techniques’ which in his view included oil painting as well as glue-based secco” (p. 111). What we had not been able to say was that Tintori (who died in 2000, aged 92) had prepared a dissenting minority report expressly opposing the radical and experimental cleaning method.
Shortly before the press conference called to announce the committee’s findings, Tintori was persuaded by a (now-deceased) member of the Vatican not to go public with his views. He was assured that his judgement had been accepted and that what remained on the Sistine Chapel ceiling of Michelangelo’s finishing auxiliary secco painting would be protected during the cleaning. With a catastrophically embarrassing professional schism averted, the restoration continued and the rest of what Tintori judged to be Michelangelo’s own auxiliary and finishing stages of painting was eliminated. Without knowledge of Tintori’s highly expert dissenting professional testimony, the public was assured that despite intense and widespread opposition the cleaning had received unanimous expert endorsement. Critics of the restoration were left prey to disparagement and even vilification.
On January 4th, we noted that in the widely reported schism that emerged at the Louvre with the resignations of Ségolène Bergeon Langle, the former director of conservation for the Louvre and France’s national museums, and, and Jean-Pierre Cuzin, the former director of paintings at the Louvre, from the Louvre’s international advisory committee on the restoration of Leonardo’s “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, it had been recognised that the resulting crisis of confidence was of a magnitude not seen since the Sistine Chapel controversy. Restoration advisory committees are not imposed on museums and customarily they serve as political/professional fig leaves. In the wake of the Louvre committee resignations, embarrassed and perhaps panicky members of the museum’s staff offered self-contradictory and unfounded assurances (see below). In January, the Louvre’s head of painting, Vincent Pomarède reportedly claimed that “The recent cleaning was absolutely necessary for both conservation and aesthetical reasons.” This assurance proved unfounded on both grounds. Pomarède added that no member of the committee “has ever said that the cleaning was not prudent and had gone too far technically.” One has now done so – publicly – and left museum restorations under an unprecedented spotlight.
During an earlier cleaning controversy at the Louvre, Edgar Degas threatened to produce an anti-restoration pamphlet that would be what he termed a “bomb” – but he never did so, so far as we know. Now, as Dalya Alberge reports in the Guardian, the French Le Journal des Arts yesterday published an interview with Ségolène Bergeon Langle of truly momentous if not incendiary consequence (see below). We learn that her resignation came after no fewer than twelve letters requesting information on the restoration’s course went unanswered; that it was made in specific and pointed protest against the use of retouching pigments whose safety had not been proven; and, that the Louvre’s public claims of some pressing conservation need to remove the varnish were false, having been made despite it being known within the museum that any potential threat to the paint came not from the varnish but from a single faulty board in the picture’s panel which was reacting to the museum’s insufficiently stable environmental conditions. Perhaps most disturbingly serious for art lovers are Bergeon Langle’s disclosures that along with old (but nonetheless still protective) varnishes, original material of Leonardo’s was removed – against her advice – from the painting; and, aesthetically, that it is confirmed that the modelling of the Virgin’s face was weakened (see Figs. 1 and 2; and, for weakening to the modelling of St. Anne’s face, Figs. 12 and 13).
That the Louvre authorities would not inform even so distinguished a member of its own advisory committee might suggest either that the restorers had not known in advance what they would be doing to the painting; or, they feared that disclosure of their intentions would provoke opposition within the advisory committee. Either way, this was clearly an unacceptable (if not improper) way for a museum to execute irreversible alterations to one of Leonardo’s most advanced sophisticated, complex and problematic works. To Bergeon Langle’s now public “insider” criticisms, additional detailed material to highlight further Louvre procedural shortcomings and misrepresentations to the press and to the public will shortly be presented by Michel Favre-Felix, the president of the Association Internationale pour le Respect de l’Intégrité du Patrimoine Artistique (ARIPA). Favre-Felix is also to call formally for the establishment of a national scientific ethics committee that would be independent of museums and their restoration teams and be charged with re-examining the conservation file on the challenged St. Anne restoration.
A second member of Louvre’s advisory committee, Jacques Franck, the world authority on Leonardo’s painting technique, has said to the Guardian that a restoration likely to generate such disapproval from leading figures should never have been undertaken in the first place and, given that Ségolène Bergeon Langle is unquestionably France’s highest authority on restoration matters, her alarmed protest is therefore one that should mean a lot to both Leonardo scholars and art lovers the world over.
Unfortunately, the restoration-induced changes on the St Anne are not unprecedented. It is Art’s general tragedy that while scholars have quietly enlarged the oeuvre of Leonardo over the last century and a half, restorers have repeatedly swabbed and scritched away at the surviving fabric of those precious works – sometimes to an astounding degree, as with the “Last Supper” in Milan. With the National Gallery’s substitute version of the “Virgin of the Rocks” we have seen how the distinctive Leonardesque expression on the angel’s mouth was altered (without any acknowledgement) despite the fact that a distinguished scholar and former director of the Gallery, Kenneth Clark, had seen the angel’s face as being “the one part of our Virgin of the Rocks where the evidence of Leonardo’s hand seems undeniable, not only in the full, simple modelling, but in the drawing of the hair”. It is a matter of note that four of the most enthusiastically supportive members of the Louvre advisory committee were drawn from the curators and restorers who were directly responsible for the London and Milan Leonardo restorations.
Of Leonardo’s accepted earlier paintings, in 1939 Kenneth Clark lavished especial praise on the treatment of modelling found on two portrait heads – and in his enthusiasm, he awarded the palm of best preservation to both of them. The “Ginevra Benci”, then in the Liechtenstein Collection but now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, was judged “the best preserved of all Leonardo’s early pictures”; one that “shows most clearly his intentions at this period”; and, one where “within the light oval of the face there is very little shadow, and the modelling is suggested by delicate gradations of tone, especially in the reflected lights.” Clark thrilled to the great refinement of execution: “We see a similar treatment of form in Desiderio’s low reliefs, controlled by the same sensibility to minute variations of surface. There are passages, such as the modelling of the eyelids, which Leonardo never surpassed in delicacy, and here for once he seems to have had none of that distaste for the medium which we can deduce from his later paintings, no less than from contemporary descriptions of his practice.” Ever aesthetically alert and deft, Clark saw all of these ultra-refined technical devices as being entirely “subordinate to the feeling of individual character with which Leonardo had been able to charge his portrait, so that this pale young woman has become one of the most memorable personalities of the Renaissance.” (We are grateful to Carroll Janis for drawing attention to this passage.)
Clark’s alertness to the physical/aesthetic characteristics of Leonardo’s hand was to the fore in his reflections on the “Portrait of a Musician” at the Ambrosiana in Milan. In the “subtle luminous modelling” of its head and its “delicate observation of light as it passes across the convex forms”, this work could only be “by Leonardo’s own hand alone and unaided” and it was “very similar to that of the angel in the Virgin of the Rocks”. As it stood before 1939, this too was “perhaps the best preserved of Leonardo’s paintings”, and in it we were then able to “learn something of his actual use of pigment, elsewhere obscured by dirty varnish, and we see that it was less smooth and ‘licked’ than that of his followers.”
Ironically, Clark, with his pathological aversion to “dirty” varnish (which is to say, old varnish on an old painting on an old support), was more responsible than anyone for the subsequent museum restoration/stripping mania. Looking around today’s museums, it is hard not to conclude that Clark might have been more careful in his wishes. Bergeon Langle’s warning against the modern addiction to penetrative imaging systems is particularly apt and timely: the hyper-active restoration changes (see right) made to the modelling and to the expression of those precious living Renaissance faces have cumulatively thinned and abraded pictures surfaces and material components and thereby remorselessly pushed great paintings into sad resemblances of their own infra-red under-states (see particularly, Figs. 4-11 and 19 & 20). Technical curiosity kills more than cats. In the case of Leonardo it has contrived to pull that artist back from his own increasingly lush highly-wrought subtly atmospheric shading towards the brilliant but thinner decorous linearity of Botticelli, when any comparison of the “Mona Lisa’s” hands with those of Leonardo’s “Annunciation” would have warned precisely against such perverse and regressive adulterations.
The interview given to Le Journal des Arts of 27 April, by Ségolène Bergeon Langle read as follows:
Why resign from the Louvre’s scientific advisory committee for the St Anne? “In January 2011 the committee had agreed on a gentle cleaning of late varnishes and the removal of the stains on the Virgin’s cloak. Yet, between July and October 2011 a more pronounced cleaning was done and presented as ‘necessary’, which I objected to. I was then faced with people who would oppose my position, which is technical and not based on aesthetics. My 12 letters [to the Louvre] asking for precisions on some aspects of the cleaning process and on the materials to be used for retouching, remained unanswered. I had to resign (on December 20th, 2011) to be heard just on one specific point: the Gamblin retouching pigments were not to be used since their innocuousness is not proven. Right from the beginning, false ideas have been put forth, like calling ‘repaints’ original retouches by Leonardo in the work’s early stages, or to attribute flaking in the paint layer to the ‘contracting varnish’, a [consequence that was] actually due to the sawing up of the wood [panel]…”
What do you think of the work done? “In my opinion, the precautionary principle hasn’t been respected. We must face the fact that the Virgin’s face is less modelled now. The cleaning should never have gone so far. However, I was happy that the grove [of trees] be preserved and, also, the ground’s material constituents that some ‘felt’ not original (though between January and April 2011 a brown-greenish section of the ground, located below St Anne’s elbow had been removed already). Besides, another matter of much controversy, the whitened layer on Christ Child’s body, has mistakenly been understood as a late varnish [that has] gone mouldy. I’m inclined to believe it was an irreversibly altered [original] glaze and, therefore, I have recommended that it be preserved, but nobody would hear me.”
The current Leonardo exhibition implies that his other paintings in the Louvre should be cleaned also. How do you feel about that? “Just not to do it, by all means! The original flesh paint in the St John-the-Baptist, being rich in oil, displays a significant network of drying cracks and might be fragile in the event of cleaning. For sure, scientific methods are essential but they need sound interpretation and wisdom dually… To date, there is too much boldness originating mistakes and an alarming fascination for infra-red investigation whereby are revealed under-layers that were never meant to be seen.”
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